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CIO interview: Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer, Avon International

The international beauty brand faced a major problem when the UK went into lockdown – how could its door-to-door sales model adapt to a socially distanced world?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Avon calling: what happens when lockdown eliminates your business model?

When Nick Burton joined Avon International as vice-president of digital products and architecture in January 2019, he knew he was in for a challenge. The world-famous beauty brand was keen to embrace digitisation, but was encumbered by a reliance on legacy IT.

What Burton couldn’t have predicted as he embraced the challenge in front of him, was how much the world and his company’s operations would change during 2020.

“Coronavirus means we’ve shifted our focus to rapidly helping the business to navigate through this really weird period,” says Burton, neatly summarising the huge upheaval facing senior executives since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Avon has had a particularly tough hurdle to overcome. The firm’s distance-selling model relies on representatives visiting customers door-to-door to take and deliver orders. That model has stayed consistent throughout the company’s 135-year history, but it was a practice that would be impossible to continue during lockdown.

“The IT team rapidly turned its attention to the key question for us as a business – in a world where our reps are in lockdown, and therefore can't leave their home because selling Avon products is not an essential reason for leaving home, how do you support them so they can continue to sell?” says Burton.

The answer, as he explains to Computer Weekly during a socially distanced video-conferencing call, came through the smart use of digital technology.

Taking up the challenge

Around the same time as the UK went into lockdown in March, Burton moved to a new position at Avon, chief information and digital officer (CIDO). The move followed Avon’s merger with Brazilian cosmetics group Natura at the beginning of 2020.

Natura decided to structure the group in two halves – a Latin-American operation with multiple brands, and Avon International, which includes operations outside Latin America, plus the brand and the product portfolio.

Burton’s move to the CIDO position at Avon International reflects that transition. In addition to digital architecture delivery, Burton now manages all the local market IT teams. Colin Shenoy, formerly vice president for IT at Avon, is now vice-president of IT at Natura, where he manages group-wide technology infrastructure concerns.

Before joining Avon, Burton spent 18 years at vehicle glass repair specialist Belron, including leading IT. Although he enjoyed the role, it was time for a fresh start.

“We weren’t building new stuff to respond to the crisis; we were adapting the things that we had”

Nick Burton, Avon International

“I’d reached the end of the road in terms of appetite to do more digital stuff at the company,” he says. “When I found out about Avon – which is a well-known and beloved brand, but often forgotten by a lot of people outside emerging markets – it was a new challenge. They hadn’t fully embraced a digital way of interacting with customers and sales representatives.

“It’s definitely a much faster pace here at Avon. People often ask me how I’ve gone from windscreens to cosmetics – and, actually, a lot of the fundamental principles are universal. It’s around putting the customer at the heart of what you do and building products that are going to meet their needs, so that hasn’t really been a challenge.”

In his first 18 months at Avon, Burton instigated a lot of change. One of his priorities was to deal with the company’s significant legacy IT issue – for example, it runs 60 different enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. He is also focused on the firm’s digitisation process – work that paid dividends when the world went into lockdown.

“Nobody knew what was going to happen, so you had pull everything right back, take stock, and deal with the stuff that needed to be dealt with immediately,” says Burton. “We largely did that from our own resources, both in terms of people, and the systems and the applications we already had. We weren’t building new stuff to respond to the crisis; we were adapting the things that we had.”

Coping with lockdown

While the IT team’s big focus during lockdown has been on helping to modify the firm’s distance-selling model, this transformative effort was proceeded by a week or so ensuring that office-based staff would be able to work from home.

As a global business, Avon was already a heavy user of collaboration tools, including Microsoft Teams, Office 365, and Jira workflow-management tools. The good news, says Burton, was that the firm’s corporate network stood firm and was able to support more than 12,000 people online concurrently.

“We already made heavy use of collaborative tools because it’s a global business,” he says. “Working virtually was comfortable for the vast majority of people, so it was really only a question of whether the infrastructure would cope with the sheer volume, which it has admirably. So we were through that initial but fundamental phase within about a week.”

With the remote-working strategy in place, the technology department started thinking about how digitisation could help the business and its sales reps to cope with the new situation. The first change involved allowing reps to send deliveries straight to customers, rather than having to rely on door-to-door deliveries.

“In essence, we gave the ability to add an alternate delivery address – nothing dramatically complicated, but that opened up a number of other things that we needed to take care of around how invoicing worked and some related areas,” says Burton, who adds that this change involved making modifications to 30 of the firm’s legacy systems.

Although the technical challenge was considerable, the impact for the business was transformative. “For a rep, it was the same experience of placing an order – they just had a new option to say, ‘tick here if you’d like to deliver it to your customer’s address’,” he says.

Making the most of digital

Burton’s team bolstered its work around delivery modifications by focusing on e-commerce. The pandemic has put a new emphasis on the importance of being able to allow reps and customers to use digital channels. During the first three weeks of lockdown, UK e-commerce at Avon grew sixfold.

“It was just a dramatic shift,” he says. “With that came the need to support, from a supply-chain point of view, lots more smaller boxes being shipped. So the challenge of how you manage that flow became an issue – how you manage the warehouse-management system and the physical layout of the warehouse, together with social distancing? How to handle that peak was a real focus in the third and fourth week of Covid-19.”

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The company’s e-commerce presence includes a URL with the rep’s personal store name, so they receive commission for driving sales. It’s a similar approach with digital brochures – as with e-commerce, Avon had already started creating an online alternative to its paper brochures in 2019. That effort was upscaled through lockdown, with digital brochures created on a weekly basis.

Once again, reps can send a personalised link to clients or share the brochure through their social channels and receive commission on any sales. Across digital channels, Burton and his team have used technology to enable a rapid business transformation – and that change is likely to have long-term ramifications.

“We’ve pretty much sorted out our front end, in terms of the customer-facing concerns,” he says. “The next thing that we need to tackle is the layer where we manage all of our business logic, so all of our pricing and promotions, and how we manage compensation and orders.

“That’s very complex – we’re clear on how we’re going to do it. We were going to get started this year. We’re clear on what we’re going to do in that space – it’s just a matter of getting back to it.”

Building for the future

Burton continues to look for new ways to push technology-enabled change. While his team is battling to break Avon’s reliance on legacy systems, he says the aim is to take advantage of on-demand IT services in as many ways as possible.

“I’m a massive proponent of doing stuff on the cloud,” he says. “We had been planning to move all of our front office, all of our customer-facing systems, onto AWS about now. But that got put on pause because of Covid-19. We’re now starting to resuscitate some of that work.”

In many ways, Burton and his team’s efforts during the pandemic have been all the more remarkable given the technical debt they face. “Everything we’ve done to cope, we’ve done on-premise – so, extra credit to the team for that,” he says. “We can’t just go to a control panel and dial it up, although I wish we could have.”

In the future, Burton aims to use the cloud to introduce more of the emerging business use cases his department has helped support during lockdown. In fact, the team is already thinking about how it might use pioneering technology in innovative ways.

“We’re using machine learning to predict the likelihood of a rep not placing orders and becoming a lapsed representative,” he says. “We’ve rolled that out as a platform for people internally who have to manage teams of reps.”

Two years from now, Burton hopes to be in a position where more customer-facing services – such as e-commerce and digital brochures – have been rolled out across all of Avon’s international markets.

“I want the capabilities that help the reps and our consumers to be everywhere,” he says. “And I would like us to have made good progress, so that we have a number of implementations and are moving into a rapid cookie-cutter-type production line of roll-outs, so we know what’s going to simplify that real complexity in our legacy architecture.”

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