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Sean Pillot de Chenecey chats with Alan O’Neill, change management expert, corporate culture and customer experience expert.

Included in the chat:

  • Selfridges and how Alan made an impact working as a change management consultant
  • How customer experience is the new differentiator for businesses
  • What is going to affect consumers in the future
  • Book review: Who moved my cheese?
  • Culture case study
  • How Alan approaches his speeches so they are written for the audience

Episode #124

Customer experience is the new differentiator for businesses

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (00:04): Hello this podcast is care of Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau representing a select group of the world’s finest thinkers and thought leaders founded in 1999. Today Speakers Associates operate out of nine offices across seven countries covering the UK, Europe and Middle East. I’m Sean Pillot De Chenecey author of The Post-Truth Business and Influencers & Revolutionaries. In this series, I interview a range of fascinating individuals, proudly represented by the bureau. These change agents and industry experts give an update on their specialised areas of knowledge, and also on their motivations and viewpoints regarding the future of business. Today, I’m really pleased to be joined by Alan O’Neill. He’s an author, trainer, conference speaker and international change consultant, indeed known as the change agent. Alan has over 30 years of experience from the frontline to the boardroom supporting high profile brands to achieve amazing results. He’s a reputation for making the complex simple and for being down to worth and practical as the lead consultant to Selfridges, he was instrumental in transforming it to become the world’s most profitable department store and has been voted the best department store in the world where a focus on customer experience has produced stunning results until 2004 self-produced with something of sleeping giant, but under O’Neill’s guidance, it has become not only the best apartment store in the world, but one of the most profitable per square meter outside retail he’s bought discipline rigor and common sense to change projects involving companies like AIB Bank, Bri, Chevron, Kaza Lavasa, Nissan, Symantec and Xerox.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (01:55): So, Alan welcome.

Alan O’Neill (01:58): Thank you, Sean. Good morning.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (02:00): All very good here. Thank you. In London, I’m aware that you are in Dublin at the moment. So just tell me, Alan, as we are at this this sort of time of the year in these interesting times, when you are talking with your clients, either as a consultant or indeed as, as a conference speaker, perhaps we can start off just let me know. What are some of the, the really key issues that are impacting your clients at the moment?

Alan O’Neill (02:24): Well, Sean, because my clients vary right across industries on B2B and B2C it’s difficult to pin down one thing in particular from a, from let’s say from a, a consumers or a macro environmental thing. I mean, obviously there’s stuff like health and wellbeing and sustainability are big issues. But for me when I look at the common denominators across, across all of the clients that I work with, I wanna focus here on internally their people, their own people issues rather than trying to identify macro invo macro business issues and the things that are seriously impacting on most of my clients is the change in workforce and the expectations and the, and the challenges of retention of good talent. For example, pretty much every sector in Europe now is challenged with getting good talent. And because there’s such a market for talent, now, people move and rotate quite a lot.

Alan O’Neill (03:19): So getting the environment and the culture right within the organization to retain people is a challenge. I mean that like worklife balance and particular and, and how to balance a course is another agenda item. But if you look at the worklife balance, for example, you know, there’s a lot of talk about worklife balance and you have this Google factor and so on where bean bags and other things are becoming talked about so much, but I find that there are certain industries can’t cope with worklife balance in the same way, such as B to C industries in, after all shops me to open at nine o’clock in the morning, don’t they hotels are 24 7 operations. So they can’t have work life balance in the same sense. But yeah, the, I think for me in summary, the challenges, internal ones around staff tendon.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (04:09): Mm, very interesting, very interesting, by the way, tell me just going back to the, the issues of retail and particularly selfs, because it’s such a fascinating case history, I mean, such a high profile retail site best just talk that story in of, you know, where they were and how you manage to make such an impact on that brand.

Alan O’Neill (04:31): Right. Well, Fages have been around as you know, for over a hundred years and they’ve been somewhat like a roller coaster, Sean, in terms of their, their dynamism, their changes through the years gone up from, you know, privately held company to being a PLC and then being bought out again. And then again, being bought out again. So the current dollars are a Canadian Irish family called the westerns and they have there are lots of differences around the world, but they also have a major stake in associated British foods, which Primark and Fortner Mason, for example, but not only that they’ve got department stores in Canada and in Ireland called brown Thomas, they recently bought another chain in the Netherland. So when they bought Selfridges in 2004, they bought a business that had gone through significant change in its previous 10 years, Sean, under the leadership of a, in a flamboyant Italian called ator REDI, and he full credit to him and his team.

Alan O’Neill (05:30): They effectively, if I may say they sexed up the store, they brought, they made it a house of brands and they, they changed it from that sleeping joint, what it was being very old factory clinical type of retail operation to a, a very sexy house of brands. So when the Western family bought it, they took that to the next level, by turning that amazing house of brands into what it is today to be the, the leading department store in the world. And how do we do that? Well, the CEO at the time was an Irish guy who led the Irish brown Thomas chain. And he was asked by the owners to step across the water and lead the selfishness group. I’d been working with him for many years in the various operations. So he brought me in as their external change management consultant to help guide the process around determining a new north star of the business, helping to develop a new strategy and most importantly, a new culture. So it was pretty much what I was involved there for eight years, Sean, where we moved the profit from the first year. I think I remember the profits of 45 million pounds a year and 80 years later, the profits were 195 million pounds a year. That is all through the global magic crisis. So yeah, lots of change there, Sean.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (06:50): That’s absolutely extraordinary. Superb. And in terms of your own sort of story in terms of, yeah, again, I know you’ve worked with a ton of interesting brands herds, lifter, Mercedes Mo Hennessy, et cetera. How did you get started? You know, where, where did it all, where did it all begin for you?

Alan O’Neill (07:09): Right. Well, John, you can see me, Sean, you can’t see me, but you do know me. And you know, the color of my hair is not blonde or fair anymore. It’s gone somewhat gray, which, which, which is a evidence of my years in this business and another businesses. So I’ve been around a long time, but I started out in retail. Would you believe? So I started to here in Ireland in a, a retail operation and I, I had my own chain of stores and then got pretty bored with that and wanted to change. So I moved into the world of training in 1991. And then after another years training, I just, I found an niche. I, I found that I hardly enjoyed teaching and training people. And as Peter Drucker said, you learn so much more from when you teach other people than what you read or are listened to.

Alan O’Neill (07:57): So I turned that to my advantage because I really have a, a, a pattern learning. So the teaching and the training thing developed over a number of years, but then Sean, I became cynical and I can safely say that today. I’m probably the most cynical trainer in the world, despite the fact that I had a training division, but let me explain. Yeah, what I found over the years was, you know, we, we had a great reputation across UK and Ireland for doing great quality training programs. And so, yeah, at the end of the, the, the, the 2, 3, 5 days of training, people would walk away, buzzed up and excited with their new depth of knowledge and so on. But then in the interest of client management, I would go back to the client sometime later, let’s say four to six months later, which I can, and to see how are you getting on with what your people learned?

Alan O’Neill (08:49): And Sean, just too often, I found that nothing had changed and that’s coincided with my own studies. I mean, I just, at the same time, and I realized actually that training was just a subset of change management, as opposed to the end in itself. Now, look, if you are selling people on a straightforward, basic training program on how to present better. Yeah, of course they’ll learn and they’ll change as a result of that. But when you get organizations really trying to change behaviors and trying to change culture and doing it through training, like whether it be leadership training or customer service training, or selling skills training far, often the impact that’s expected just doesn’t happen. So like I said, I then moved my thinking and I developed my proposition significantly more. And now my world is dominated by change management, where I now work with organizations to drive cultural change, to support them on determining a new north star, which effectively vision strategy stuff. Mm. And any is now a subset of that, as opposed to, like I said, the end of itself.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (10:00): Very interesting. And does that all link into, into your book?

Alan O’Neill (10:03): So what I did Sean with that was I focused on one element of culture because pretty much in every sector that I work in and this applies to B2B and B2C. So it’s not just a retail phenomenon. I do a lot of work in hospitality. In fact, tomorrow I’m speaking at the hotel Federation annual conference mm-hmm . And last week I was with the Waldorf hotel in Dubai. So supporting them on a sales drive event, whether it’s banks or whether it’s professional services or whether it’s B2B, there’s one common denominator in all of those. And that is that they all have code to terms with the fact that differentiating on product alone is not it just doesn’t hold merit anymore. Even Toyota, who I work with Toyota had this tagline, the best built cars in the world, Sean. And even they recognize that that’s not enough of a differentiator.

Alan O’Neill (10:56): They have this program called. They want all of their dealers to become the best retailer in their local town. And what does that mean? That means then in addition to having fantastic cars, but they, they recognize that it’s how those cars are sold, the experience that customers have. So I decided therefore to focus on that as a key ingredient for success, for any business, because to me, Sean customer experience is the new battleground differentiated in product alone. Just won’t call it. So yeah, the book premium is the new black is all about, it’s actually pretty much how to book. So it gives you my take on what is customer experience in the modern world. And more importantly, how organizations of any type can actually put it into practice by putting it at the center of their decision making. Mm.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (11:48): And, and in that, are there any particular brands or organizations that you point to as being sort of best in class?

Alan O’Neill (11:56): Do you know John? There’s a, I, I I’ve viewed on that. There are lots of large organizations, which we all know well known brands, even Harrys and Sal, which is included in there, but I’ve come across. When I was doing the research for the book, many small SME businesses who were doing incredible pains, Sean, to deliver great customer experiences. I mean, that, I could tell you stories about hotels, who do wonderful pains. I could tell you stories about food and drinks distributor. Recently, I came across a company who are it’s bakery. They specialize in gluten-free bread for celiac and other healthy lifestyles who want to have gluten-free diet, wanna look at some of the things that they’re doing to drive a great customer experience. That to me is an just it’s it’s indicative of the, of the agenda, the way it’s taken such precedence now, right. Across industry.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (12:52): Mm. Fascinating. And then looking ahead to the future in terms of where things are going, so to you, what, what are the most important issues facing consumers as we look beyond 2020

Alan O’Neill (13:05): Facing consumers in particular? Hmm. Well, to me, there’s a, there are some common denominators, Sean. I mean, the sustainability agenda is very, very strong. I was in Germany two weeks ago, and I think I paid 50 cents extra on the bottle of water for the cap, whatever system they have for the single use plastic it’s it’s related to the cap, I think. But to me there’s a very, very strong message coming through about sustainability and whether it’s the the pars agreement being scrapped by Trump, or just generally speaking, when we see the weather changes, for example, the sustainability agenda is very strong. And I think that is a challenge for consumers because there shouldn’t, you know, if consumers are still under pressure for time, they still want convenience, but there doesn’t have to be a contradiction in there. So I think the challenge for consumers is how can they, how can they get the balance with their conscience around sustainability, but still make demand around convenience and speed and so on. And then of course, the other challenge for consumers is we, we were we’re in a normal, an always on world where we’ve all got our mobile phones stuck to our hips. Now those 24 7 stuff. And the challenge for consumers is that they have an expectation that their service provider can cope with that. You know, for example, look at personalization, Sean, Sean, are you a net? Are you a Netflix

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (14:31): Subscriber? I’ve certainly am

Alan O’Neill (14:33): Right at an Amazon purchaser.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (14:35): Of course

Alan O’Neill (14:36): Okay. So you get emails in your inbox, just like I do, which is a personalized email based on your watched history or your, or your purchase history. And that’s exactly what’s happening here, where customers that becomes the norm now, as, as Netflix and Amazon, then others start to continue to personalize. What do for you and I, our expectations will start growing then, and we’ll expect it from our other walks of life, whether it be our telephone provider or whether it be whether it be where we get our car serviced or whether it’s which our local restaurant, whatever. There’s a, there’s a great restaurant chain in the us called union hospitality group. Mm-Hmm, founded by a guy called Danny Meyer and he talks, I mean, he’s very strong in the whole customer experience thing. They don’t try to be the best restaurant. They try to be the favorite restaurant, Sean.

Alan O’Neill (15:29): But within that they hire all of their team to have a very, they hire people to have a very high hospitality CRO, not I, not IQ, not EQ, but HQ, the high hospitality CRO and what they’re doing there. They encourage all of their team to constantly connect dots. So let’s say they’re serving they’re serving a table with two or three gets who are celebrating a birthday or an anniversary or whatever. They go back to their CRM database. And they clock that into the database that Sean Pillot De Chenecey is over there having a bite to meet with his friends. And it’s Berkeley today. Mm-Hmm so it’s just connecting dots so that they can then personalize their offers to you and others in the future. Mm. So they, so I suppose, so technology trends and sustainability trends, I think will impact on consumers going forward. Mm,

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (16:22): Very good. And then from the point of view of, you know, what inspires you, any particular things that you would sort of point out to the listers in terms of things that you are reading where you get, get your inspiration from?

Alan O’Neill (16:39): Oh, well, Sean, I’m I write a lot and not just books like you do. I, yes. I do. I’m working my second book, but I actually write I’m a weekly columnist in the leading of Irish something newspaper, and I’m a regular, regular contributor to the Telegraph in, in the UK and other trade magazines around the world. So I do a lot of writing and there tend to be 1000 word columns. So that’s a lot of bite size writing. And to do that, John, would you believe I do a lot of bite size reading myself mm-hmm and I get great inspiration from some of the, the obvious ones like Harvard business review and McKinsey insights and Deloitte, but just, I mean, I’m constantly picking up snippets here and there. John. Now I’m an avid reader of books too. And lately, would you believe I’ve moved to a few novel rules just to kind of give my head some space, but recently I did write a review of a book that you remember that you I’m sure you have read yourself.

Alan O’Neill (17:40): It’s it’s probably 20 years old, if not more, but it’s who moved my cheese by Spencer Johnston mm-hmm . And the reason why I read it again for, probably for the third time is because I decided to do a review and to actually do a, a summary of the book in one of my weekly columns. And yeah, I mean, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a light read Chan Chan. And it only takes a couple of hours to read, but Hey, the messages in that cartoon book are phenomenal. They’re strong, if not more relevant today than there were 20, 30 years ago, when the concept of change management was little known, which believe Sean, I, I, my, I started my company in 1998 and I called the company Carra change management and my friend said a, what the hell are you doing? That’s a ridiculous name. And it probably was at the time, but, you know while because of the change management, wasn’t that popular at that time. Wow. Everybody’s talking about it now because I guess the speed, the volume of change, the complexity of change is just growing exponentially. Everybody’s very, so yeah, that’s the book we re reading and I would recommend to any listener rules actually having read it. It’s a light read, take a couple of hours readers with some great learning. Mm-Hmm,

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (19:02): very good. And in terms of organizations interest you, I know you mentioned that really interesting one just now that, that union hospitality, looking into things around the sort of hospitality quotient, any other organizations that you would tend to speak of at in your talks that you think really sum up you know, where it’s all going and then and that already linking into great service, great experiences, cetera.

Alan O’Neill (19:27): Well, red on I’m working currently with a company called land bell group. The land bell group is a German headquartered recycler. So they, they broke the monopoly whatever 18, 20 years ago in Germany. And they disrupted the marketplace by say, breaking the monopoly and then setting the business recycling packaging. And they did very, very well years. And then about five years ago, they acquired another recycling company, which was a specialist in recycling of we that’s SOS and electrical equipment and batteries mm-hmm . So the land be group bought this Europe wide company called E R P European recycling platform. And they bought other companies two in that whole recycling space. They bought a consulting company called H two, and they bought a software company called ProGene and I’m working with them. And so here’s an interesting thing. They invited me to speak at their annual management conference last September 12 months.

Alan O’Neill (20:32): And they said, look, this is what we’re going through. And we’d like you to be provocative Allen. So come in and challenge us. So to do that, I interviewed a number of the delegates in advance, Sean, and got a real sense of the company and where it’s at and so on. So when I, in my keynote presentation to them, the, I was provocative and I provoked the audience and I challenged the audience to think about culture. And here they were having bought several companies and trying to merge them into one significant group and the one stop shop for recycling. But I felt they had mystic trick on recognizing the importance of culture that not only national cultures are gonna have an impact here, but also the different historical cultures within each of the entities. So, yeah, so I’m highly inspired by them because since that keynote presentation, they then came back to me a few months later and said, okay, Alan, put your money where your mouth is and let it please help us drive this culture refresh.

Alan O’Neill (21:36): Mm. So for the last six months I’ve been working with them now on this significant project, which is take me all across Europe to help them develop a new culture. And what inspires me about them is that here you have an organization that has represented in countries from the Iberian peninsula to Italy, to Austria, obviously Germany, Nordics, UK, and Ireland, and not understanding that you’ve got national cultural differences as a challenge on the one hand, but you now have historical heritage cultures within each company and merging those into one and getting people on the same page as it were, and believing that there great value in this notion of having one culture has been extraordinarily successful.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (22:23): Mm. Really good. Wow. And then what about, so I know you mentioned the, that the issue of, you know, clients asking you to be challenging and, and just how powerful it is that when you do that, just studying back a second and, and looking at, you know, conferences on mass, and I know you’ve given talks all around the world, when you look back at those, are there any particular, is there any particular event itself, or a couple of events that, that you’ve looked that you can think of that you think, right. That was a really fascinating and interesting and different way of doing things. And so, you know, that’s perhaps what other listeners to this podcast could think about?

Alan O’Neill (22:59): Well, actually two come to mind, one funny one, and then one serious one shot. Let me get this funny one out of the way. OK. It, couple weeks ago I was speaking at an event in LIBO and there was another guy speaking and the moderator got up and he referred to the other guy as the guy from Ireland. So his name is Martin. So he introduced Martin and said, Martin from Ireland. And then he said, Alan, from the UK, now, Sean, , you can imagine what that means to an Irishman who, where there’s a friendly rivalry between the Irish and the English for many, many years, for obvious reasons. Yeah. Yeah. But while we have, we got on really well and this great fun and banter between us, but of course I had to set the record straight didn’t I . So the only way I could prove that I was truly Irish was I started my keynote by doing a jig, a river dance jig, Sean .

Alan O’Neill (23:52): Now my concern about that is that it was recorded and it’s somewhere in the, in the up there in the, in the wires and in the, in the air. And I’m seriously concerned about where it’s gonna come back to haunt me. But anyway, leave that aside. We got aside, I’ll tell you another story was I was speaking at an event for Intel mm-hmm Intel contacted me and said, look, we are doing our annual customer event, and we’d like you to speak on the future of retail. Now I work with a lot of retailers and I don’t I don’t try to put myself out there as being the futurist with retail, but at the same time, I, I very definitely felt safe and authoritative in being able to talk about the future of retail. But I said, I was basically concerned because their audience was going to be four or 500 technology retailers from around Europe.

Alan O’Neill (24:44): Mm-Hmm . So I said, as I do with every conference, I asked Intel to allow me to interview some of their delegates in advance. So they, they arranged me to speak to media marker to Dixon’s car, phone warehouse, and two or three others mm-hmm . And I interviewed probably about four different customer delegates in advance of the, of the event. And what struck me, Sean, when I was talking to all of these very, very polished retailers was they didn’t have any concerns or any, any curiosity about the future of retail, because particularly in the world of technology, it is already moving very fast. They knew what the future of retail was, was what they knew, what was coming down, the tracks. Mm. So their concern wasn’t so much the future of retail, their concern was coping with the future of retail. Mm.

Alan O’Neill (25:35): And as a change agent, I felt that I had a duty to the audience to, to think about this differently. So I went back to Intel and I said, guys, I think we’re on the wrong track here. And here’s why now Intel embraced that new idea. And we’re really, really pleased because had I just gone in there and talked about the future of retail? Yes. It would’ve been an inspiring 40, 45 minute presentation. And I would certainly have given them some things that were challenging and interesting about the future, but on that day, at that time, that wasn’t their biggest concern. Their biggest concern was how can they cope in the new omnichannel world? How could they cope and change their own culture, their own, their own structures, their own systems to cope with all of the changes that are coming at them. Mm. So that’s how I then redesigned and refocused my presentation.

Alan O’Neill (26:28): And I can, I’m really happy to say that it rocked on the day and the cue of retailers wanting to speak afterwards about their individual challenges was quite phenomenal. Wow. So that to me was a key, key a key learning, I guess, for any of us in the speaking world that, you know, doing the research and doing the prep in advance is absolutely critical. Mm. So, yeah. I, I like to, I like to think I, like, I, don’t only like to think I claim show that I’ve never given the same presentation twice. I genuinely tailor every presentation to suit the audience as a result of interviewing a few of the delegates in advance. Mm. So that to me is, that’s my key takeaway from my experience in conferences and one thing in particular, like I said,

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (27:14): Yeah, yeah. That’s, that’s absolutely superb. And then a as you begin to finish off, and this has been absolutely fascinating. What about as we are looking towards the end of so 20, 20 and beyond, what’s the next big, big thing in your life what’s coming up?

Alan O’Neill (27:30): Well, I am working on my second book and this has, what’s going to be about culture and my working title I thought the publisher and I are having fun debates on this one, whether this is your, you know, in the same flow of my first book, which is premium, is in new black. This I’m playing with this being culture is in new gravity because I’m really strong on culture, Sean, you know, that every change program that’s going on, whether it be a large scale change as a result of the merger acquisition or small scale change as a result of putting in SAP or some other software program change comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But every change program has a culture implication and every culture refresh program has a change implication. So they’re both tied very much hand in hand, and I’m really strong in this concept of culture.

Alan O’Neill (28:21): That’s what if I look back and look at what’s the, if I was stuck in an elevator and somebody said to me, what is the key to the success? The, the dramatic ride in profits in salvages, absolutely it’s culture. I wanna look at the current client, like I said, land be, and we’re doing this major culture refresh for them. To me, that is this significant trend for every organization, because look, Sean, we’re all challenged. Every industry has its own specific challenges, but there are common denominators. And the common denominator is this, that change is coming at us fast and furiously mm. The complexity, the speed and the volume of change and coping with that is a challenge for everybody. And the key to that is culture. Mm.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (29:08): Very interesting. Okay. That just to finish off then perhaps just again, to, to make it absolutely crystal clear for the for the listeners to this podcast, wherever they may be in Asia or the middle east or whatever Scandinavia the us, just so they’re absolutely clear on yourself, give us a bit of a hard sell in terms of exactly why it is it, they should be be booking you and what it is that you bring to your renowned keynote speeches.

Alan O’Neill (29:38): So I think Sean, when I look at the feedback and the testimonials that I’ve had from other clients in the past, what people say about me is that my, my concepts and my ideas and my storytelling are practical stories. They’re not concepts that are at 50,000 feet in the air. I like to break complexity down to simplicity. So whatever the issue, whatever the topic is. And my, my chosen topics that I speak most frequently on are change, change management culture, rich links in employee engagement and also customer experience now. Yes. And of course retail is another area that I’m well known for. But when I speak, what I like to do with Sean is do my research. Like I said earlier on, I never do the same presentation twice. I genuinely tailor every presentation to suit. And how do I do that? Well, first of all, brief from a client is critical to help them land their key messages.

Alan O’Neill (30:39): I then go, and I pretty much insist where I can to speak to a few delegates in advance that builds empathy, that also builds rapport so that when I come and present my keynote, my credibility goes up dramatically because I can now relate to the issues of the audience because they’re real and current. Mm. And then when in my storytelling I think I’ve got a strong sense of empathy I’m practical and yet, and whether it’s in the far east in the Philippines, or whether it’s in the middle east, where, and recently I was in Teran and where English is not the first language, I completely get the needs to be very, very careful and speak in a way that is clear and practical and understandable for all listeners, Sean.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (31:31): Well, super. And it’s been absolutely fascinating talking with you. Thank you very much for your time. So a O’Neil author trainer conference speaker, and international change consultant. Thank you.

Alan O’Neill (31:42): Thank you too, Sean. It’s been a pleasure. Have a good day.

Sean Pillot De Chenecey (31:46): Thank you for listening to The Speaker Show podcast. Please leave a rating on iTunes. We’d really appreciate it. And also it’d be great. If you could subscribe to the podcast itself, you’ll find it also on Google podcasts, SoundCloud, or your favorite podcast app. Thank you.

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Sean Pillot de Chenecey

Foresight strategist, author and podcast host Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an inspirational speaker, who’s also consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands.

Sean has a very deep level of knowledge regarding the genuine issues impacting brands from a cultural, social and business perspective.

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