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Newspapers are struggling; taxi ranks are being replaced by Uber drivers and the hotel industry has been rattled by Airbnb. Yet getting businesses to adapt quickly to embrace and compete with disruptive technologies can be surprisingly difficult.

James Haycock, managing director and founder of Adaptive Lab, set up the London-based consultancy in 2009 to help businesses adjust to new technology and the accompanying shifts in customer behaviour and regulation.

“The chief executives of these companies are waking up terrified that they are going to be eaten up by disruptive technologies,” says Mr Haycock. “But for all the meetings they hold, they actually struggle to act. We try to package the new ways of working used by start-ups and take them to larger businesses. The idea of experimentation is really important to us.”

He points to Airbnb, the room-sharing service, as an example of good practice. Its founders slept in some of their clients’ houses to get first-hand experience of the service they were offering.

“There’s a lot of talk in business about being customer-obsessed and prioritising decisions about what customers need, but in fact in many cases the actual priority is to deliver to shareholders. We try to get them to address how they can better serve customer needs and put themselves in their shoes,” says Mr Haycock.

The firm was “frequently recommended” by clients and peers in the digital transformation category of the UK’s Leading Management Consultants 2018, compiled by the FT and Statista, and “recommended” in the financial institutions and services sector.

One of Adaptive Lab’s main findings was that customers did not always want additional programmes, they simply wanted existing services to function as they should.

“When we worked with credit card companies, we brought in customer research,” Mr Haycock says. “We found out that customers didn’t want value-added programmes — they just wanted the corporate credit card programme to work properly,” he adds.

He points to a brand called Smarty, created for Three, the mobile phone company, after its research found customers wanted greater simplicity and transparency of contracts — “a very simple and straightforward plan”. The phone service provides discounts to customers who do not use up all their data.

Working with Saberr, an artificial intelligence company, Adaptive Lab helped to design a strategy that included a simplified, viable product with which Saberr could go to market quickly. This has resulted in Coachbot, a digital team coach that is being piloted in the NHS and at Unilever and Logitech.

Other clients include Barclays, Santander, Lloyds, Standard Life, Vodafone, TalkTalk, Asos and Tesco. It is also working with Konica Minolta, a manufacturer of photocopiers and office equipment.

The business, which employs around 50 staff, has grown quickly. In the past four years, sales have doubled every year, and it is aiming to increase revenues by 40 per cent next year.

“Big companies are so ingrained in what they do, they don’t ask, ‘why do we do it like this?’ We try to help them act a little more nimbly,” he says. “It’s a matter of when, not if, banking will be reinvented, so we are helping them to figure out how.”

The foreign exchange market is one part of banking that is being transformed, with new online businesses such as TransferWise stealing market share from the large lending institutions.

“They are really eating into the margins of the foreign currency market,” says Mr Haycock. “The banks may have invited them in and held meetings but they haven’t shaken up the business to adapt. Even though they are aware of the new entrants and scanning them they don’t necessarily take them as seriously as they should,” he adds.

Mr Haycock is convinced that Adaptive Lab offers something fresh in the overcrowded consultancies market. The bigger consultancies can take up to two years to come up with a plan, he says — far too long to get competitive advantage.

“Although big consultancies say they are agile, they take a long time to deliver. They will say, ‘this is a big programme of work so we need a big business case’,” he says. “From a [large] consultancy’s perspective, the more bodies on a project the better for the longer term.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.