Driving urgency and impact: E.ON Next’s head of digital and CX
In the latest episode of MYC'D UP WITH CX LEADERS, we speak to Abdul Khaled, head of digital and CX at E.ON Next, about the need for immediacy in delivering great CX – and how technology can help achieve this - and why corporate social responsibility is more important than ever.
In the most recent instalment of our podcast series, we are joined by Abdul Khaled, head of digital and CX at E.ON Next.
With a wealth of experience in the tech sector, Abdul has transitioned to customer experience and has been tasked with spearheading the CX strategy of E.ON Next (the sister branch of energy giant E.ON). Abdul discusses how he has implemented the company's firm stances on customer-centricity and corporate social responsibility, as well as espousing his views on what he believes to be one of the major aspects of delivering great CX – the need for speed.
“We're a much more conscious generation, where we learn to understand the values and principles of businesses that we are engaging with. There is a small niche of loyal customers who really believe in the values that we are offering and they will stay with us based on these values.
MYCUSTOMER: I'm joined here today by Abdul Khaled. And we’re going to jump straight in with the first question. We always like to start off these chats by talking about our guests' backgrounds and their journeys to becoming senior CX professionals. Could you tell us a little bit about your pathway to customer experience leadership?
ABDUL KHALED: So I started off very much in the tech space. I started off as a developer, mainly, because I just love building things. I think there's never a better feeling than having an idea and then being able to turn it into your reality without actually depending on anyone else. So that's always been a passion of mine, building things. And it still is today.
So despite the type of work I do right now, I still get my hands dirty, get involved with a bit of coding and I love to build prototypes. I don't have time to build full on features now, but even just getting an idea to interpret with the handover with the team, and being able to flesh it out gives me a little more satisfaction than just dreaming of an idea. So I guess naturally, as you're coding and developing things, that you then have a sense of, ‘well, I might as well make this look nice and make it look pretty’. So then you start exploring elements of design and sort of upskilling yourself in design elements, and at some point that evolves into pure CX principles, because it's not just about making things look good. It's also about how you can make this useful to customers.
So that's the journey from being a developer to then really exploring design principles, CX, customer journeys and customer behaviour. And that really overlaps with another strong passion of mine that I've had ever since I was a kid, which is psychology. You know, really understanding the human mind and human behaviour, factors that influence human decisions. That’s always been something that’s sparked curiosity in my mind. Speaking honestly, if I wasn't in this space right now, I definitely would have been doing something to do with criminology; crime dramas, crime mysteries, these are sort of out-of-work hobbies of mine.
So you can see where the blend is there – psychology, design, human behaviour, development. I think combining all of those principles together really puts me in a good position. And I'm not the only one, there's a lot of other people that have similar backgrounds to me. And I think having that skillset, that diversity really puts you in a good position in the CX space.
MYCUSTOMER: So I just wanted to talk a little bit more about your background and your previous roles, because I think it's really interesting. In a recent podcast we did with another guest called Yusdi Santoso, he spoke about CX leaders historically coming from research backgrounds, rather than tech backgrounds, which he believed was one of the reasons that implementing technology is often one of the bigger obstacles to CX programme success. But you do have a strong background in the tech sector. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of coming into the CX sector with your tech experience? And do you think it gives you a different perspective?
ABDUL KHALED: Yeah, it definitely gives me a different perspective. And I think, when you can have a diversity of perspectives, when trying to tackle customer problems, you're always in a much better place. But you mentioned technology being a big obstacle in CX programmes – I think I would wholeheartedly agree with that. I think that's one of the things that I've seen time and time again in the industry, where you have great ideas but they're not always realistic, and you aren’t able to implement them as quickly as you would have liked. So I think speed is such a key factor when you're talking about CX challenges. And I think that's one of the areas where companies trip up, is the speed of execution, or not being able to get ideas out there quick enough, and solutions out there quick enough to solve customer problems.
When a customer has a problem, they need it solved immediately. So it's simply not good enough if you have the answer, and you're sitting on the answer, and you're waiting 12-18 months for it to get out there because you're dependent on new technology, and having to bring in new providers, bring in new solutions, migrating from one platform to another platform. If you’re waiting that long to get a solution, who are you really serving? Because it’s not the customer. The customer couldn’t care less – they want their problem solved today. And if you’re not able to act quickly enough, that customer will leave and go somewhere else. So by the time you've got the solution out there, the problem that they've had is no longer in existence.
So I’ve come in with a technology background, and what it does is it allows me to really approach problems with a technical foundation. So we've come up with ideas, and we say, ‘what can we actually deliver today with the resources that we have, and the technology stack that we have?’ And it might not be the perfect solution, right? We encourage people to be blue sky thinkers, but then we also make sure to look at what's the iterative approach to get there. So we don’t start with the blue sky thinking – because that's not gonna happen immediately – you start with what you have, and then you iterate along the way.
The idea is that if you can improve the customer's experience today, and make it better today than it was yesterday, that's a win. And I think that's where technology really comes into play. And sometimes when you haven't had that technology grounding, the conversation may seem like a good idea. But a good idea is only good if you can actually solve a customer problem when you need it solved. I think that's where it's a different perspective, for sure. And like I said at the top of the answer, I think having a diversity of views and perspectives can only make your operation healthier when solving problems.
MYCUSTOMER: So obviously, you come from an energy company. So I'm going to have to mention rising energy costs, which have been a big topic throughout the UK during the past few months. Clearly, that's just one part of the wider issue of the cost-of-living crisis, which has understandably led to a greater scrutiny of companies. Energy companies in particular came under fire when their profit numbers were released. And at MyCustomer, we actually did a piece on the results of a survey which revealed that 43% of customers believe brands should be absorbing raising prices to support their customers. When absorbing costs isn't an option, what else do you believe brands and CX departments can do to still foster customer satisfaction and retain customer loyalty?
ABDUL KHALED: It's a challenge. But I think the bit mentioned earlier about when it's not possible to absorb, because we try to, but when it's not enough, you've got to try different methods. And I think understanding the climate is so so important. So we're talking about customer loyalty and retention engagement. If you had a blank canvas, you could think of all sorts of innovative ideas and trying incentives, etc. But during the current climate, there was already a negative sentiment between customers and energy companies – and they are struggling, a lot of customers are really struggling to just get by day-to-day, so you've got to understand the context.
And within that context, you’ve just got to get down to basics, which is trust; trust through transparency, first and foremost, and then by education. So by transparency, we've got to be over communicating to customers as to why the prices are increasing, and when they are increasing. In terms of education, it’s about what can we actually do together with the customer to limit the damage? Because there's no way of sugarcoating it, it is damaging; the cost-of-living crisis is damaging, especially for the poorer communities that we have in this country. So we're going to be upfront about it, we're going to be transparent about it, and then we've got to educate. But then educating them only goes as far because people don't want to hear words, they want to see action. You've got to start off with educating and explaining what are the things that people can do and how can we help them, but then you've got to get into action.
So what we try to do is we have several grants and schemes and financial support available for the customers that actually desperately need them. We try to reach out and try to sell it. These are the ways that we can proactively help you. We try and deliver preventative methods. So before customers get in debt, how can we alert them in advance? How can we give them advice on what techniques they can utilise to prevent them from going into debt? That could be payment methods, that could be several sort of behaviour changes that they could do, it could be small products that they can utilise within their own home that can prevent increased energy use.
So there's different elements and there’s no easy answer. I don't think we've cracked it; I don't think anyone has. I think it's continuous testing, learning, improving, and just benefiting the customer in the small aspects that we can. But again, it just comes down to transparency, being honest and upfront and trying to do our bit as much as we can.
MYCUSTOMER: So a big part of E.ON Next’s mission is your commitment to sustainability and renewable energy. I'm just interested in how this is received from the CX perspective. We are seeing more and more brands taking ethical stances due to the concerns of customers, particularly of the younger generation. Is this an area of E.ON Next that has been particularly well received by your customers? And in your opinion, how important is corporate social responsibility to today's customers when it comes to who they do business with?
ABDUL KHALED: It's important because you have to stand for something. And I think we're a much more conscious generation where we learn to understand the values and principles of businesses that we are engaging with. Not everyone, but there is a small niche of loyal customers who really believe in the values that we are offering and they will stay with us based on these values. Those are the pros.
But we have some of the customer base who would like to go wherever the cheapest price is, and you've got to understand the differences within that. So for us, it's about educating that customer base as well to say, ‘look, it's not just about looking at the cheapest offering, it's about the wider impact that it has on the environment and communities.’ So it is important because you've got to stand for something in business, you want customers who say, ‘we want to stay with you, because of a bigger impact rather than just price.’ And you want people that work for you to want to be part of a bigger mission and a bigger purpose.
So I think for those reasons, it's very important for us to really lay out what we stand for, stand behind it, and actively try and launch initiatives and solutions and products that adhere to those values. And like I said, I think we're living in a time where if you don't stand for something, you stand for nothing. So it's very important to have these principles baked in, even when it comes to the business world.
MYCUSTOMER: I've heard you speak in the past about one of the key reasons that E.ON launched E.ON Next in the first place was to create a brand that differentiates itself and has its own identity as a far more customer-oriented and customer-centric company. Could you just talk to us a little bit about that company ethos and some of the actions you've taken to champion it?
ABDUL KHALED: The customer-centric perspective that I really try pushing in my team – and it goes back to sort of what I was saying earlier – is about urgency. So for me, customer-centricity is about solving customer problems immediately, especially in the space that we're in, in the utility space with the cost-of-living crisis. You know, we can't wait for things to be perfect, we see a problem, we have to fix it with urgency.
And I think that's one of the aspects of E.ON Next being a startup. So we have this startup culture, the startup environment with a lean structure, there's no other layers. We are a regulated industry, so there was quite a bit of government involvement, but there's not enough that gets in the way of actual execution – and I think that helps us. When we see a problem, we're able to really rally around and get solutions out there pretty immediately. And that's also a mindset that we'll bake into the team, which is: don't chase perfection, chase solutions.
But then it's also about the collaboration that we've created here. So one of the key elements at E.ON Next that I see is bringing the problem solvers, and the problem finders together. So problem finders are the people that are on the front lines, or customer service teams – these are the people that are talking with customers day in and day out, they understand the customer better than anyone. So we try to have a situation where we're all sat together, when we get together in the office, we're all sat together in the same space, sharing ideas, sharing experiences, really being able to consciously and unconsciously collaborate on solutions and ideas. We have customer service personnel baked into our product teams, and I kid you not, in some cases they provide the most value and insight because they really know the customers. So when we are talking about potential solutions, their input is so valuable to the final product. And they can also act as product advocates for us. It's so important for them to actually know exactly what the product does, what products are coming up. So when they speak to customers, not only can they provide better support, but they can also guide them towards other solutions that maybe customers weren't even aware of.
So we do roadshows, we do a lot of insight sharing, we make sure that they're familiar with the products and they know what's coming. And then we also are proactive in the sense that when we launch products, sometimes we launch it to customer support teams, and then they come up with frequently asked questions that they can already predict that customers will ask. So we were able to sort of get those playbooks in and preempt some of those customer questions, concerns and support well in advance. I think bringing those two worlds together and creating a community of end-to-end customer experience – that was the vision, and that's where we see the level of the impact because of that vision.
MYCUSTOMER: Just on to our final question here. And this is one that we ask all of our guests, if you could share one piece of advice with fellow CX professionals, what would it be and why?
ABDUL KHALED: I think it would be to broaden the horizon. For too long, we can get really focused and stuck in sort of our own tunnel vision. I think it's really important to understand and educate ourselves on other disciplines. There's no excuse really, we've got access to information at our fingertips. So if you're a researcher, you should really go and try to understand technology, because it will help when you're researching. If you're a developer or a coder, really try to understand behaviour principles and design principles, because again, they will really help you. If you're a designer, go out and learn data and analytics, and really enhance your sphere of knowledge. Because when it comes to solving customer problems, having that diversity and holistic experience and knowledge and insight can only help get better solutions.
I think for too long what we find with a lot of companies is they get the best product for a specific area and then think we've done the job. But if you have a great online customer experience, but a really poor customer service experience on the phone lines – that isn’t great CX for the customer, because they need to have the same levels of quality at every single touch point.
So as CX professionals if we're able to really have the holistic understanding and appreciation of different facets and different areas of the customer experience lifecycle, and we're not just focusing on one area, we can actually then impact and implement ideas that go throughout the lifecycle. And by being able to broaden horizons within other disciplines, it just enrichens the impact that you can have even within your own area. So for me it would be to go out there, see the road, see other disciplines, see what you can learn, see what you can get influenced by and really expand your horizons in that respect.