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Neil Davies talks through the challenges posed by the pandemic

Neil Davies, CEO of Close Brothers Commercial, talks through the challenges posed by the pandemic, the role of data and what has impressed him over the past year…

What stood out for you in 2020?

By any standards, it was an incredibly tough year, but there have also been some highlights.

What really impressed me during the ongoing pandemic has been the dedication of our staff, who have really looked after our customers – including offering restructures – while simultaneously managing to increase new business levels, all while many are working remotely.

What also struck me was the robustness of our planning because while we didn’t expect a global pandemic, our planning for a downturn left us in a very good position to manage the C19 challenges and everything that came with it.

Given what we have experienced, what do you feel are the key challenges that will present themselves in the coming 12 months?

Where do you start with this question? I predict the rise of ‘zombie companies’, which are firms that will need additional monitoring and possibly support to survive. The reality is, some companies may find themselves in distress once the government support schemes are wound up.

I also anticipate a fall in some asset values as a result of an economic downturn.

From a recruitment perspective, an increased push across many industries to digitise will lead to shortages of expertise and bandwidth, resulting in companies competing for a smaller pool of talent.

Conversely, as our competitors contract, we are already seeing increased numbers of applications for sales and operations roles.

The importance of good quality data has really come to light during the pandemic. What are some of the lasting effects?

It will be a greater acceptance of the use of data; for example, what the daily R- rate is and the 14-day rolling per 100,000 infection rate. This will, in turn, hopefully lead to more questioning of the raw data instead of an acceptance of a summary report.

Used properly and effectively, data allows us to better understand our customers and expand and adapt our services to suit their changing requirements and habits.

At Close Brothers Asset Finance and Leasing during the initial lockdown, with significantly increased forbearance, and – most notably - when we launched CBILS, we started making decisions based on dashboard information. It became very addictive - and still is - because I didn’t need to email or call 20 people to get a feel of where we are, asking ‘how many of this’ and ‘what volume of that’ – and I’m able to refresh my dashboard every 60 seconds!

Will data ever replace the need for face-to-face relationships?

It’s easier than ever for us to use online resources to communicate with companies, research products, purchase items, and even perform banking tasks. These activities are then used to develop customer profiles that can track trends, predict behaviours, but - and I know I sound like a dinosaur - I just don’t think it builds long-term relationships.

Consistent and regular analysis of our operational data paves the way for making better customer-focused decisions in the future and we can - and will - move towards a more digital offering, speeding-up and easing the customer journey. However, if we don’t meet our customers face-to -face and visit their premises, there is a chance we will make poorer credit decisions and customers will be less likely to stay with us.

It's a constantly changing picture out there – what have you been doing to keep colleagues safe?

We have – and continue to - closely follow and adhere to Government guidance in the five countries we operate in. Our people returned to the offices and our sales teams to the field a little earlier than many, which I genuinely believe was the right thing to do for our staff, our customers and the business.

We have worked on the basis there will be further restrictions and lockdowns, both locally and nationally, because we want all our people to stay safe, and have retained a flexible approach.