Positivity Despite the Lockdown in a Sustainability Consultancy

Recorded and edited by Audrey Coggins

The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global Pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy interviews Pascal Bouwman who runs Zinnige Zaken, a Dutch-based sustainability consultancy in Amsterdam with twenty years’ experience, on 31 May 2020. He shares how the consulting business works during COVID 19 and how the lockdown has strengthened the relationships with the customers. Despite the fact that the clients are holding back on starting new projects, the lockdown has become a great opportunity to involve them in creating new ideas and getting an early reality-check. Besides, Zinnige Zaken continues to move ahead and has used this time to digitalize of a lot of its products on sustainability.

Can you tell us more about Zinnige Zaken?

Pascal: Zinnige Zaken has been operating for nearly 20 years and we help companies to incorporate sustainability within their DNA. 20 years ago, sustainability wasn’t even a label! We were probably way ahead of the market. Now being around for two decades, we’re known within the market for sustainability within the workplace.

The main difference between us and other companies is that we tend to look at the employees of the organisation. We activate employees to be aware of sustainability — we believe this is the strongest way.

What kind of customers do you get?

Pascal: We’re honoured to have larger companies as clients. Our focus is currently the Dutch market, so our clients are located here in the Netherlands — for example, KLM — but many of our clients operate at an international level. Our clients are mainly commercial, rather than the government.

Your clients are large, as you mentioned, KLM. These clients have been impacted by the lockdown. What is the implication for your own business?

Pascal: Zinnige Zaken has two main components: consultancy and employee activation. In the latter component, there are games, events etc, involving people. This has had to stop, obviously. That went overnight. The day after the Prime Minister announced the lockdown, 15 March 2020, the employee activation component went silent.

The consultancy side of things has kept going along — although you can definitely feel the fear of companies with starting new sustainability projects. Companies are afraid and are sitting on their hands and their pockets.

Any idea how long this cautiousness will last?

Pascal: My crystal ball has been broken now for a few years! But we’re sensing a new curiosity regarding sustainability amongst clients. This week, for example, we even got two new assignments for the events (employee activation) side of the business, in September 2020. I do get the feeling that business is getting on, albeit slowly.

I keep weekly contact with my clients and I think the situation is changing. The sentiment is getting better. People are starting to do things again — it’s terrible to have to sit at home and waste time, basically! I do feel the excitement.

It’s interesting that you keep in close contact with your customers. Do you keep them up to date with what you’re doing or is it more a ‘coffee chat’?

Pascal: It’s funny… I’m not trying to sell anything at this moment. It’s a funny thing. In the last few weeks, I’ve really focused on strengthening relationships with my customers and connections. We put a lot of effort into keeping the connections with my customers. From the first week — the lockdown really hit us hard — the first reaction was ‘what was going on’ and then we settled down. But as an entrepreneur, we start looking for solutions!

Instead of pushing sales, my team and I focused on strengthening relationships with customers.

My first notion was that I should talk to some people to see how they are doing. My own team, now operating via Zoom, had so many doubts and assumptions. I had to stop the worry that was building and we started calling customers to find out how they were doing.

We started making contact and it really helped this business! Customers reacted positively to our contact. We tried not to talk about the virus and the trouble because we know, it is a black hole and it is sucking all energy. Instead, we focused on the future of our customers and their businesses.

The best thing that has come out of it is that I am not trying to sell anything, because for now, I cannot do anything at this moment! I’m establishing relationships and having great conversations with a lot of people about their business, their home… whatever.

I think it’s more about people interested in each other than it is trying to make a sale.

Yes. At the moment, it is indeed quite challenging for a lot of businesses because they don’t have anything to sell because the market is reluctant to buy anything in these times.

Pascal: It’s a huge opportunity for you because if you don’t have anything to sell, then they aren’t afraid of you! Sounds silly but you can have wonderful conversations because there’s no hidden agenda of me trying to sell you anything.

Do you feel it is easier for you because you’ve been in the market now for 20 years? By now, you know your clients and employees well. Do you think it’s the same experience and ease for much younger companies and new entrepreneurs to reach out to people?

Pascal: Companies are always changing. They evolve. They rediscover themselves. FOr ourselves, in the last 20 years, we’ve made a lot of changes. We’re not the same company we were 20 years ago. The market has changed. The world has changed. But the foundation is strong and that really helps us.

Take for example a company like yours [AlterContacts.org and LockdownEconomy.org just reached its 1st anniversary at the time of the interview], just starting to reach the market and in the phase of learning about yourself and finetuning what the core business is and what the foundation is. Suddenly the pandemic and lockdown happen. Sure, you’re more in trouble than we are, of course.

Do you know what your competition is doing right now?

Pascal: I don’t want to be the bad guy but most of them seem to be complaining about the terrible situation. And it is terrible. It’s not fun. But I’m not a strong believer in complaints. We ourselves, are moving ahead. We tend not to look too much at the competition.

I have always involved customer feedback in the process of improving our service and offerings.

We are using this time to establish relationships with our customers with all the connections we’ve got but we’re also taking this time to reinvent the organisation — ways to improve. So we’re moving forward.

I have a tendency to involve customers in the process. So whatever idea I have that I think might profit the business, I usually ring a customer and ask for their feedback. I ask the question, “What do you think of this idea? Does this fit you as a customer? I’m not asking you to buy anything, but does it fit as a customer?

For me, this isn’t a terrible time.

That’s a very progressive approach! Of course, involving customers is always a critical point for businesses. It sounds like you’ve really established trust with your clients.

Pascal: Yes, that’s critical. Our customers are our livelihood. Without our customers, there would be no Zinnege Zaken!

What is the outlook for you in the coming months, given we won’t see the COVID19 situation disappear anytime soon?

Pascal: Yes, we have a lot of new projects coming on! We’re on the verge of releasing our Escape Game (Dutch and English). The Escape Room is based around sustainability and Global Goals; teams of five heroes are tasked with saving the world from extinction. We are hoping to make it available this week.

We have also a lot of digitising on the rest of our products. While we really like the fun part of our business, it’s a serious matter. But we’ve found that it’s better not to treat it too seriously. We make it more playful and fun for the clients’ employees. We already had a range of games around the Global Goals but these were not digitalised; they were set up for a group of people sitting around a conference table with the facilitator. Now, with the lockdown, that is not happening right now.

As I mentioned before, I’m picking up positive vibes from the clients. I do strongly believe that the market is getting on. Of course, I don’t really see any money coming in until September 2020; and this sentiment is echoed by our customers. We don’t know if this is going to be a regular summer holiday where everybody is gone or just half will go. My gut feel is that this year’s summer holiday season will be different. Our customers are also urging their employees and customers to take holiday days early in order that not everybody goes on holiday during the July 2020 break.

Last week, we invented a children’s game around the SDGs where children have to collect four cards. We are releasing the game to our customers’ children. It was finished yesterday and is now at the print shop. We will send it out to all our customers. The goal is that when these families go away on their holiday, the children will have this activity and can discuss and look out for sustainability around them.

It sounds like you and your team are really full of ideas on how to make most of this time and how to move ahead, despite the fact that there is no revenue for the company. There’s still a lot to be done with and for your customers!

Pascal: Yes! I really think so. Business is down. That’s a fact. I can scream and kick at it — but it remains a fact! I can’t actually do anything about the Coronavirus myself. What I can do is to reinvent my organisation and make it stronger.

This is the energy my team and I have amongst ourselves. We are eleven people. Just last week, we started going back to the office. We’ve also been in touch via Skype. While we have been in our own homes, we were never out of touch. In terms of work, we stayed busy. We stayed occupied.

It’s really inspiring to hear such positivity in the light of this lockdown!

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