As part of our series about the “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Clark Twiddy.
Clark is the President of Twiddy & Company, a hospitality and asset management firm along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. A second generation family business, Twiddy & Company has for more than 40 years brought vacationing families together in some of the finest homes in the country.
With more than 125 full-time staff, Twiddy & Company welcomes more than 250,000 guests a year to more than 1,000 different vacation homes. A veteran of the US Navy Clark also serves in a wide variety of civic and community roles.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I work in the same place I grew up and although I genuinely consider it to be paradise I took the long way back home-I was fortunate to be able to join the Navy after college and lived all over the world. After graduate school, I was able to come back home and work in a business that was built on getting things right. I get to work in a family business, alongside wonderful people, and help our customers create some of the best family memories of their lives. As a side note, don’t underestimate the power of the GI Bill — in my mind, it’s the best investment the US government has ever made.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I make more mistakes by 9 AM than most people do all day so I’ll pick one of the funny and more recent ones — I recently joined a Zoom conference in a hurry and had a speaking role early in the session. I gave what I thought was a great story and great context to get us started and watched several thumbs-up from the audience. I asked for any comments before I turned it over to the team and just as I started to relax the moderator mentioned that “Clark’s comments, even though they were meant for a different audience, nevertheless apply to all of us.” That was her polite way of saying I had the wrong comments — in fact, in my haste I had grabbed the wrong notes and gave the wrong remarks. I was mortified, of course, and the lesson has unfortunately been an enduring one for me — slow down, take five minutes, and take a deep breath. Preparation, in a time when so many of us are rushed, is the “skills gap” between the professional and the amateur.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Without friends, role models, teachers, team members, and family I’d simply be a dumpster fire. There have been countless moments in my life where, on my own, I would have been a complete failure but I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I’ve been able to be surrounded by fantastic friends and team members who when they sense my shortcomings they simply don’t let me fail. Just recently I joined in an in-depth financial challenge with a team and candidly I was in way over my head. The talented leader of the group, upon my voicing my concerns, just smiled and said that we were going to be a success even if he had to carry every single one of us — he might just need our help along the way when his legs got tired. In saying that, I quickly wanted to follow him and recognized that approach as a powerful leadership model.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
We simply wanted to help others experience this place we loved so much and over time as our few customers came to love the place as much as we did the numbers caught up with the business. My father, who is our founder, is an extraordinary listener — he literally shucked oysters together with potential customers and listened to their hopes and dreams — built our Company around what he heard those folks wish for over oysters.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Our business, like so many others in the travel and tourism industry, has been deeply rooted in personal transactions for more than forty years and now, with the pandemic’s lengthening impact, we know that we’ve lost to a degree our home court advantage as e-commerce grows to include the vacation rental world in new ways. We’re moving quickly to include new technology and new engagement platforms but here’s the good news — this is still a people business and our culture remains our top priority. This may sound counter-intuitive, but we’re simply going to do the same things differently. Long-term, one thing I think we’ve learned is a degree of counter-cyclical strategy as we move so rapidly through peaks and valleys on the demand side. We build the business to thrive not just in the peaks but also the valleys and I think our team and our customers recognize and appreciate that.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. As you know, Digital Transformation refers to the integration of technology to speed up processes, efficiency and productivity. Many CEOs have argued that Digital Transformation is not a choice, but a necessity to stay competitive. Do you agree? Can you explain what you mean?
I agree and would offer that any kind of transformation is a necessity — the pandemic at the moment is putting ferocious pressure on business both large and small to change digitally but there have been other pressures over the years as well. In our business, the ability to shift from a physical footprint — our home court advantage — to a “top of smartphone” footprint has been key as well as our speed of engagement and response to even the smallest levels of interest. As a takeaway, we think a good deal about the ratio of things we are losing in our personal engagements to things we are gaining in our digital models and want to be sure we are gaining more than we are losing. The gains — the new investments in new systems — are always only relative to the customer experience.
We’d love to hear about your own experiences with Digital Transformation. How have you used Digital Transformation to improve customer experiences, and other aspects of your operations and processes?
Like many, we’ve innovated more here in the past year than we had in the past ten years. We’ve deployed a range of new digital systems — CRM’s, call center technology, and other data-driven platforms — to make sure we know our customers and can respond quickly to their needs. We’ve done much more video engagement, much more data sharing, and also been much more transparent across our Company as well.
I will say that I think it’s relatively easy to say the transformation is a priority but where the true execution is revealed is in the resource and priority decisions. We define a priority in three ways — it’s got to be resource-supported, time-based, and with a clear reporting relationship. If a goal doesn’t have those three things, it’s not in fact a priority and those resource decisions are where the senior leadership team really makes a contribution.
How far along are you with the digital transformation of your company?
For us, there will never be an end state — I believe we’re on the right path with the right people in our journey but that path will continue over what I hope will be the next forty years. One company culture component of this digital journey is a commitment — set from the very top of the organization — to listen to customers constantly, deeply, and empathetically. If you truly listen to your customers, they will show you the way.
Are there specific areas that you are digitally transforming or are you doing it across your entire company?
Our priorities will always be the areas that are front-line customer focused although we also keep an eye on the efficiency side of our operations as a discipline to good decision-making on the investment side. Said a bit differently, we’re doing it across the Company but our customers care most about the areas and features that they use and we’ll always reflect internally what matters most to our customers.
How are things going with this new direction? Has your digital transformation enabled you to provide a better value for your customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
It comes as no surprise to say we’re living in remarkable times with watershed moments in our country across multiple fault lines this past year. We’re both fortunate and pleased to be in a good spot both as a firm and in the larger market to be doing what we’re doing. I think we’ve been able to listen well to our customers and partners and we’ve seen that be reflected in several of our internal benchmarks. Critically, in any transformation front-line staff plays the most important role and we’ve been able to keep as our top priority the wellbeing of our team in place. Jim Collins said that great companies inevitably have great unit-level leadership and we’re blessed with excellence in our frontline team composition. As a result of that commitment, those unit teams simply won’t let the company fail.
Has integrating digital transformation been a challenging process. What are the challenges? How do you resolve them?
The challenges, in my experience, have always been on the people side. You can have one source of truth or ten in terms of data and as long as people are still people we’ll be imperfect in our use of that data. Big picture, our challenges have always been around getting people to really commit to change and to use new things and we wouldn’t be people if we didn’t recognize how hard it is to change. We resolve our challenges slowly, continually, and with complete candor. We like to say we are hard on problems and soft on people as we change. As an aside, I think as a business if you’re not outside your comfort zone regularly in a disciplined way you may not be moving fast enough.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take A Company To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Start with knowing your customers not just as data points but as people — if you don’t have a robust and in-depth feedback system to stay in touch with your customers, that’s a starting point. As an example, pick a long-time customer and simply call them and ask them how well they think you do at asking for their feedback. Their answers may surprise you.
- Second, make sure you have an equally robust feedback mechanism internally to your team as well — this process has to be mature in its ability to share candor as well as consensus. If you don’t have candid and regular feedback within the organizational culture, that’s step two prior to any digital transformative effort. Said differently, the probability of failure goes down drastically as more of the team feels included, safe, respected, and heard. As an example, gather together a non-hierarchical section of your team and ask them — ”Why won’t this work?”
- Assess the strengths of your trusted relationships in the digital and technology space beyond the sales pitches. Are these long-term partners or short-term transactions? Weight long-term partners more heavily and it’s key here to take the time to get this assessment right. As an example, many of the sales pitches will be very similar so look, as telltale indicators of differentiation, for the small gestures in execution. The small things add up over time.
- Going back to our priority conversation, now is a time to compare those relationships to your time-based, resource-allocated, and relationship-clarified priorities. Are there high levels of commitment across the company to these priorities or just some north-south head nodding in meetings? If the terrain isn’t right, it’s too early to begin any transformative process. Relentlessly comb your team formally and informally for this commitment prior to any real effort beginning.
- Note that I’ve put as number five any real transformative effort beginning — in my experience, the first four steps are people focused and are the foundation of long-term success versus limited short-term gains. This is the step where you define what the next level is, who will take you there and when, and how it will matter to your customer.
Based on your experience would you recommend using custom software to digitally transform, or off-the-shelf software?
I think that’s a time-based question and over time involves both but in a sequence (Napoleon said genius was in many ways a matter of sequence). Initially, I think off the shelf is fine to start (when you first get your driver’s license, most folks don’t get a BMW to learn). Over time, as competency builds, there will be more demand for certain features and unique capabilities that open the door to more custom options. At the same time, great companies have great relationships and your software relationships will build as you grow your capability — those relationships will in many cases guide you as well.
As a word of caution, however, remember that no matter the digital need the best barometer of utility will always be the ability of your workforce to use it in a way that customers value.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Serve others first. That, to me, opens the door to so many meaningful and satisfying relationships that over time becomes the art form to a business well built and a life well lived.
How can our readers further follow your work?
That’s flattering…if you’d like to come see us in person one day I’d be happy to welcome you in person and show you around. Our website is www.twiddy.com and I’m also on LinkedIn.