Addison Lee Group: Purpose-Built to Improve the Customer, Employee and Driver Experience


The original ride hailing disruptor is focusing on the experience both online and on the road to become the premium travel service across the globe.

Addison Lee, a premium ride hailing service, similar to Uber Premium, arguably began the digital transformation of booking private hire cars. Its fleet of modern MPV vehicles quickly forged a reputation as a far better service than London’s black cab monopoly. “In London, the brand is probably as well known as the black cab,” says Ian Cohen, CIO and Chief Product & Technology Officer of transportation service business Addison Lee. Like its fleet of Ford Galaxy cars, Addison Lee has been on a significant journey; in 2013 private equity leaders Carlyle Group took control of the firm from its founders and began re-routing the business as the disruptor faced disruption from a traffic jam of new digital ride hailing vehicles.

“The vocabulary is all about ‘experience’ - the booking experience, the passenger experience and the driver experience,” says Cohen. The CIO has been with Addison Lee since the summer of 2017, and the conversation there has had two very distinct themes: purpose and experience, because as you will read, everything sits within these themes.

A portrait of Ian Cohen

"In London, the brand is probably as well known as the black cab."

“Our internal strapline ‘for journeys that matter’ brings into focus those two themes," Cohen says. "If you want to be assured of the quality of the service, the driver, the car; if you have to get to that meeting; if you just can't risk missing that flight; if it’s for that special occasion or that special person; if it matters - then you choose Addison Lee,” Cohen says of how Addison Lee wins accounts and loyal customers from executives to families.

Addison Lee doesn’t take their position for granted and you get the impression that Cohen almost appreciates Uber for laying down a challenge. “Before Addison Lee there was no platform, but now there is one that is currently focused on the ubiquity of supply at the lowest cost."

“When your market gets disrupted, you can either choose to run with the pack or you can double down on your core purpose. In our case quality, reliability, trust, assurance - all the emotions of delivering a great premium service have to stand out. I’m increasingly drawn to ‘purpose’ and ‘why’ companies do what they do or even why they exist. As Simon Sinek (the organizational consultant and author) says: What you do and how you do it is easy - your purpose (the “why”) is much harder to explain but is vital to understand.” (Cohen and I met just days after U.S. ride hailing service Lyft announced it will seek an IPO in 2019.)

“My role here is to digitize emotions; it is an emotional choice when you book a journey with us rather than a competitor. So much of what we do nowadays is an emotional choice. When we choose quality over the ordinary, we are making a purposeful statement about “why” that decision or choice matters. I haven’t been as engaged with a strapline since I was at the Financial Times,” Cohen says.

“The FT message was all about the trust in the brand, the assurance of the commentary and that it was not run of the mill,” he says of the news organization he was Global IT Director of from 2001 to 2005 as it faced the digitization of the media. Over the last two years, the FT has reported high profits and was sold to Nikkei for £844M meanwhile its peers in the news industry face a bleaker future.

“We are obsessed with the quality of experience. It’s more than the car turning up. That's just the ticket to the game now. It’s what else happens, the driver getting out and helping you with the bags, checking if you have a preferred route, not being on the phone to his or her mates, driving to a high standard, offering water and access to the Wifi, etc.

Very few people take the time to understand their customer models from the customer’s perspective. When we say ‘customer’ we mean the booker, the passenger, and the driver (most of whom are self-employed, so we need to attract and engage them, understand their needs and help them succeed). All three parties are customers and we obsess about their experience. But our customer model is even broader - travel management companies, online booking services, airlines and even car rental firms are also our customers through our use of published API integration and move to a microservices approach.

“Even in a model that is this complex, if you are obsessed with the customer and you focus on experience led design, you can genuinely shift behaviors,” Cohen says. The CIO adds that this focus maps to the partners Addison Lee selects. An affiliate model provides travelers with the opportunity to book straight-through travel to over 100 cities world-wide where there is not always an Addison Lee owned fleet, but the partner operator has the same high standards. “It’s not enough that it is a straight-through experience on the app; it has to reflect our commitment to a premium quality and trusted passenger experience.”

“My role here is to digitize emotions, it is an emotional choice when you book a journey with us rather than a competitor. So much of what we do nowadays is an emotional choice.”

Purpose Of The Journey

It is clear that as Addison Lee transforms from an organization traditionally focused on the allocation and dispatch of rides to one that is obsessed with the passenger experience, it has a strong sense of purpose. This is because of his own focus on purpose that Cohen has stood out amongst business technology leaders in recent years. Unafraid to challenge the status quo or so-called industry norms, he recently caused consternation in certain quarters for denying that a skills shortage exists despite the growing cacophony that IT will grind to a halt because of a lack of talent.

The purpose of an organization really gives IT teams their context, Cohen says, adding that all great companies need to consider why they are in business and why their customers should care. However, the CIO believes technologists want to work for organizations that have a clear purpose and are on a bold and interesting journey that is truly enabled by the use of technology to tackle business opportunities.

A picture of a man sitting in a car looking at his phone

“You must focus on what makes you an attractive destination for people and how you engage them. There is so much talent out there, but it's not going to just come to you because you posted a job on LinkedIn or engaged with a recruiter. You need to go to them and have a genuinely compelling proposition,” he says adding how important it is for CIOs to go to meetups, conferences and hackathons. Cohen uses a model of ‘Attract, Engage, Learn and Return’ and admits many CIOs and organizations struggle with the concept of learn and return as it is “the antithesis of retain."

Not only must CIOs change the way they seek out the technology talent they require, a key part of Cohen’s model is to engage with the talent as well, which is why Addison Lee is a business technology leader.

People often get confused with management and leadership, says Cohen. “Management takes talent and turns it into performance. Leadership is different; it is about galvanizing people around a clear and compelling vision of the future,”which again returns to the need for purpose. "Great leaders remove the complexity of a message so that people can get behind it. They articulate the message so that it is truly compelling and focused on ‘what we could become,' but the very best leaders also do two other important things. They find the best talent to execute on their vision and then they get out of the way."

“So many good leaders destroy their own vision as they become micro-managers. You have to embrace the uncomfortable ‘get out of the way’ part,” Cohen says.

A picture of a driver from the back seat

So many good leaders destroy their own vision as they become micro-managers. You have to embrace the uncomfortable ‘get out of the way’ part.

Mapping A New Route

In 2016, Addison Lee acquired the global Tristar chauffeur service following its 2015 buyout of Climatecars. As to be expected, Cohen sees integrating acquired businesses in the same context of purpose as he sees customer service and talent management. He describes managing integration as “being really clear about the kind of business you want to be rather than focusing on what the new entity will do” and “most importantly, why should the acquired entity or their customers care."

Having been CIO for JLT, Lloyds Banking Group, and leading media firms as well as having a portfolio career, Cohen has experienced a number of acquisitions.

A overhead picture of a highway with on and off ramps

“The old dogma of ‘do this in 30 days, that in 90 days and in 120 days you’ll be integrated’ doesn't work for anything other that the most basic acquisitions of similar businesses nowadays. It fails for the big strategic acquisitions. If you are optimized for process efficiency and you acquire a business that is high value, low volume, and augmented for relationships, that is like oil and water. You have to tackle the ”why” culture. You can't lead with the tech; you need to have a clear purpose and take the time to understand the people and the emotions as these are the things that will trip you up if overlooked, but will pay you back in spades if you galvanize the people behind the purpose.

“I cannot think of a single instance where the technology makes the acquisition work. If deployed in the wrong place, it can make the acquisition fail,” he says.

As well as integrating the acquired businesses, Cohen has been busy with modernizing the technology infrastructure of Addison Lee and playing a key part in the move to new headquarters.

Addison Lee has a new managed service infrastructure, adopted Salesforce-as-a-platform for CRM, marketing, and customer service and is using the breadth and depth of Microsoft Office 365 in a set of moves the CIO describes as being a mix of risk mitigation, cost reduction, increased flexibility and modernization.

A lot of that activity was risk mitigation, part of it was cost control, but a large part was about creating that flexibility we required to be a digital business. If you approach the infrastructure as just defraying risk or moving to the cloud to lower cost, we would have approached it all very differently. But you have to make the changes to your infrastructure and services in the context of where you are going as a business. You decide what you want ‘to be’ and then you do things explicitly to drive towards that outcome. To transform a London car business into a global mobility services provider we needed a different architecture both for the technical side and for the business side.”

When Cohen is not at the driving seat of changing technology at Addison Lee, he’s a committed Chelsea FC fan and avid guitarist.

“A lot of that activity was risk mitigation, part of it was cost control, but a large part was about creating that flexibility we required to be a digital business.”



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