ComfortDelGro hires first chief digital officer: A refreshed look for the biz?

ComfortDelGro has appointed Siew Yim Cheng to the newly created role of group chief digital officer. Siew (pictured) will oversee future ventures in the technology-related arena, and will also be responsible for the group's transformation roadmap and products.

Before joining ComfortDelGro, Siew was the global VP Smart City with global Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT) technology company Envision Digital. She was responsible for leading the development of AI-IOT and smart city products and solutions, in a bid to create smarter cities for a better future. Prior to that, she was with JTC Corporation for eight years, where she helmed the roles of chief information officer and chief digital officer.

ComfortDelGro managing director/group CEO, Yang Ban Seng said that as the company expands and looks at new avenues of growth, it has to be well-equipped with the right skill sets. He added that change was necessary to keep the group relevant in the fast-moving environment. He added:

ComfortDelGro is not a technology company dabbling in transportation.

"Rather, I see ComfortDelGro as a multi-modal mobility operator that boldly, creatively and persistently experiments, adopts and leverages on innovative technologies to provide us with the competitive edge and new capabilities. We can learn from others to leapfrog where technology is concerned. We do not need to be first mover here," Yang explained. Yang also elaborated that ComfortDelGro's next move is to leverage on technology to further strengthen its operations, improve its maintainability, enhance its customers’ service and experience, and provide the company insights into new trends and business possibilities.

We need to double-down on our digitalisation effort to keep up with the game. There is no choice.

"We live in a digital age today, and we can expect technology to move at accelerating pace. To do all this, we will need to make sure we have the necessary skills and talent to supplement the already strong bench strength that we have. New skills in new areas that we want to explore, areas such as artificial intelligence and autonomous driving," he said.

ComfortDelGro was formed in 2003, through the merger of two land transport companies - Comfort Group and DelGro Corp. These two holding companies have had a presence in the transportation industry since the 1970s.

While once a dominant player in the Singapore transport and taxi scene, since 2012 with the rise of ride hailing companies such as Grab, Uber and Gojek, the company has been facing stiff competition. Adamant to stand its ground in Singapore, it forged a partnership with Uber in 2017. Unfortunately, not long after Uber had to pull out of the Singapore market.

Nonetheless in 2019, ComfortDelGro rolled up its sleeves and made a move into the autonomous vehicles space with Inchcape Singapore and EasyMile. The company also invested in three transport-related technology start-ups in the areas of on-demand bus technology, fleet management and autonomous vehicle safety testing, through its six-month-old US$100 million corporate venture capital fund.

With digital-first players such as Grab and Gojek competing with traditional taxi companies, ComfortDelGro needs to evolve its business model as it has fairly traditional roots, Rika Sharma, Digitas' ASEAN managing director said in a conversation with Marketing. Sharing her views on how ComfortDelGro can catch up with the ride-hailing giants and create a unique positioning, she said that ComfortDelGro has to adopt an outside-in model.

"Companies such as ComfortDelGro need to start by thinking about their customer-first. This would mean thinking about the entire customer experience across all its touch points," she explained. Sharma added that other than a shift in the mindset to a customer first one, ComfortDelGro needs to move from being a company that is about transportation to one that drives value in a consumers life.

"The company needs to look to an entire digital transformation across customers, apps, products, technology, harnessing its data to create more meaningful customer experiences and importantly its employees need to be taken on this journey as well," she said. At the end of the day, to win over customers, their experience needs to be put first, with tech as an enabler.

Agreeing with Sharma on taking a refreshed look at its business model, Prantik Mazumdar, managing partner at Happy Marketer, a Merkle Company said that ComfortDelGro has to re-imagine its business model and complement it with its current transaction model. In addition, the company has an opportunity to rebuild its organisation in terms of structure, capabilities and learning and development opportunities. Mazumdar, who works with brands such as Grab and previously Gojek, said that ComfortDelGro has  the opportunity to create and set an example for Singapore, by enabling the "taxi uncles and aunties", who are usually from the older demography, through technology to build a secure and financially healthy future for them.

Mazumdar added that whilst the company must provide the requisite financial backing and time to allow the new chief digital officer to drive this change, it must be cognizant that its own business model is rather different from its current competition set - Grab and Gojek.

"Grab and Gojek, which are VC-backed unicorns, can run in the red for a very very long time as opposed to ComfortDelGro which has fiduciary duties of driving profit for its shareholders in the public market on a quarterly basis. ComfortDelGro's financial prudence is a big strength in the current financial environment where the competitors are under pressure to move towards profitability. This is something the board must leverage to drive change in a sustainable and profitable manner," he added.

Mazumdar added that it is now "refreshing to see an incumbent" such as ComfortDelGro take a decisive leap forward to make itself future-ready to compete against new-age digital native upstarts that are disrupting the multi-modal transportation space. And while hiring a chief digital officer is definitely an encouraging step, he warned:

The organisation must be realistic that one person alone can't be the magic wand to drive its digital transformation.

"Whilst she can definitely set the ambition, vision and the requisite processes in place, the board and the leadership must support, encourage and enable her to drive massive transformation across critical elements." he added. This includes product roadmap, business models, change management processes, marketing technology stack and most importantly, the people and organisational structure.

The people and organisational structure could mean both in-house as well as partnerships, that will help the company drive change and leapfrog competition, he explained.

Meanwhile, newly appointed Ben Wightman, head of data and analytics at Wunderman Thompson said the area where ComfortDelGro fell behind from a marketing standpoint is monetising its data. He added that Grab and Gojek have very aggressive data-driven marketing partnership organisations as well as payment platforms, which puts them far ahead of CDG as digital players.

From a customer experience standpoint, Wightman explained that the meter rates are regularly less than the “ComfortRIDE” option. According to Wightman, when Gojek entered the market, cancellations were common, similarly Grab too had drivers cancelling low fare rides.

“If ComfortDelGro positions itself accordingly, ensuring less cancellations, ease of payment, a simple app UI and partnerships with existing commute mapping apps, it can regain ground lost to the mega apps,” he said, adding that newly appointed Siew simply needs to ensure every initiative starts with improving CX as the guiding principle.