Tom Kirby headshot with podcats info

From service to experience: HUEL’s senior CX manager

In the latest episode of MYC'D UP WITH CX LEADERS, we speak to Tom Kirby – senior customer experience manager at nutrition specialists and vegan enthusiasts, Huel – about his transition from customer service to CX and how he manages to incorporate Huel’s very strong brand ethos into the CX team.

26th May 2023

In the latest instalment of our podcast series, we are joined by Tom Kirby, senior customer experience manager at plant-based nutrition company, Huel. 

Tom is a relative newcomer to the customer experience scene, having taken his first CX role in 2020, but has substantial customer-orientated expertise – with previous roles including head of customer service and customer operations manager.

This wide range of different customer-focused postions is discussed in detail, with Tom espousing on the lessons he has learned across the customer service and CX sector.

Customer experience for me is much more holistic, it looks at the entirety of the journey of the customer.


MYCUSTOMER: So this is sort of a similar question to one that we ask a lot of our guests. When we conduct these interviews, we're always interested to hear how our interviewees ended up in their particular roles. So perhaps you could tell us about your pathway to becoming a customer experience manager?

TOM KIRBY: Yeah, I mean, I can't imagine that there are that many kids out there telling teachers that they want to run a CX team on Career Day. And I think for a lot of people that come into CX it's as an entry level role to allow them to sidestep into a different department or whilst they work out what they want. And to be honest, that was me. I needed the money for travelling, and the role was easy to come by, so why not. But the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it, the more I found myself progressing. I ended up moving around jobs quite a lot, especially early on – it's a wild and weird world of CX managers. And I think I've experienced a lot of different styles from different managers, I came across different company values and approaches, and I've just slowly built my own style from cherry picking the things I liked and avoiding the things that I hated when I started as an exec.

So I used to always get in trouble. For example, call centre quality assurance people, they always used to focus on tick box activities and not the actual nature of the call or building of relationships with customers. So I used to get marked down for all sorts. I didn't say x in a certain way, I said 'tara love' at the end of a call, instead of branding out – it didn't matter that this was a customer who was incredibly happy and had all their problems solved. And so learning from that I always promised that for any qurry my teams would apply common sense over policy, and the relationship over a score sheet.

I found myself in rapid growth startups based in London, like Laundrapp and Housekeep, and that was a huge steep learning curve for me. It really accelerated my career and my personal growth, you don't have the budget or support structure you have elsewhere. So you have to wear so many different hats – startups don't have a recruitment team, the HR team, the office manager, so you have to learn how to do a bit of everything and be very self sufficient. It also means a lot of times I didn't have another CX specific or experienced manager to lean on, so it led me to get involved in other communities such as support driven or customer stories. And again, being able to benefit from such a wide experience really helped push me on to where I am now.

It actually took me two attempts to get hired for Huel. I remember, I got turned down the first time and I was gutted because I knew it was going to be such an amazing company, I wanted to be a part of that. So when I saw that they were hiring again, I didn't think twice and just went for it. I think with setbacks you have to take a mindset that everything happens for a reason. And for me, I just took it as I need to go grow and develop my skills further, whilst Huel just needed something different for that stage of the journey.

I've been able to apply a lot of the learnings and self sufficiency from my earlier roles, and just take the opportunities as they come along. It's been a bit of a wild start to my time at Huel. Within a month, I was on paternity leave, and then the day before I joined the Head I was coming to work under put in their notice. So I just took those opportunities as they came. And it's allowed me to develop my role and have much more of an impact using those earlier experiences. And so I've gone from managing the UK and EU team to looking after the global customer facing teams and driving record metrics and customer satisfaction whilst doing so.

MYCUSTOMER: Obviously, you've talked a lot about sort of covering those different roles as you've worked your way up the ladder, and a lot of your job history is steeped more in customer service and customer care. There's a lot of debate about the difference between managing customer service and managing customer experience teams, for you, what are the differences between the two? And did you have to learn any new skills when you took the step into customer experience management from customer service?

TOM KIRBY: I think have to start by understanding what those two things mean, like customer service versus customer experience. It's funny because I actually got asked this the other day by another CX leader, because I think the terms can move and change dependent on the organisation in the company. I've seen customer service, customer support customer experience. Hell, I've seen teams referred to as delight ninjas. So a chunk of it is branded. And to be honest, for me, I think part of it comes down to historical perceptions.

In the past when the customer service team dealt with issues it was all about processing quickly and efficiently as possible, and it throws up mental images like the big call centre. Now you have businesses moving away from those terms as the function itself has evolved. Customer experience for me is much more holistic, it looks at the entirety of the journey of the customer. Whether that be pre-sales, product, account ordering issues, proactive retention, customer winback. Customer experience is also about driving change within the business and the voice of the customer. Engaging with stakeholders and representing the customers needs and pain points within business decisions. Due to this, the skills needed at all levels of the department are much broader than they used to be. Here for example, we invest a lot of time into the team's product and nutrition knowledge going as far as having trained nutritionists within the CX bracket, so that our customers and our team have easy access to personalised advice based on their goals. That wouldn't happen in the call centre as well.

MYCUSTOMER: You touched on this a little bit in your previous answer, but what advice would you have for those working in customer service who aspire to move into senior CX positions?

TOM KIRBY: I think when it comes to moving forward and progressing yourself, it's understanding that you don't need to have a title or a promotion to act as a leader. But acting as a leader will get you the title and promotion. Firstly, it's massively important to widen your knowledge and experience if you've only been exposed to one or a couple of workplaces and managers, the ideas coming to the table are going to be very similar those around you, and you won't be able to reach your full potential. For me a big, big part of that came through multiple job roles. However, we don't want everyone to go off job hopping, right? There's so many amazing webinars, articles, podcasts that you can take inspiration from. As I mentioned, I've been lucky enough to find CX communities early in my career where I've benefited from a diverse knowledge base of global CX leaders. If you can learn from some of these thought leaders and take that and apply it to your own work setting, you're going to have much more of an impact.

Secondly, kind of linked to the above, being proactive, identify areas for improvement and act on it. There's a world of difference between someone saying this process could be improved, and someone saying they've spent the last couple of weeks testing a slightly different process, because they identified an area for improvement, they've seen results of that improvement of x percent. So we should apply these small changes, and they can really be as simple as rewording some copy that gets sent out to customers. But you get practice and you get get those skills working for you early on, because those are the skills you're going to need at a senior level.

Lastly, if you want to be a leader, it's not just about moving yourself from great to amazing, it's helping those around you to get from good to great, or just get to the good point. It's supporting those around you by becoming the go-to knowledge expert, but also turn the empathy that you have for the customers inwards as well. That's going to really help establish yourself as a leader within the department. And you'll move forward.

MYCUSTOMER: I really liked what you said there about putting suggestions into practice rather than just speaking and giving ideas, I think that's really helpful. We're going to move on now to a question more specifically about Huel, which obviously has a very strong brand value relating to healthy living and environmental sustainability. What is the customer experience team's role in reinforcing these brand values with customers?

TOM KIRBY: So as I mentioned, we put a lot of effort and importance into our team's ability to offer personalised advice, support and build relationships with our Huel-igans. I mean, you only have to go back a couple of generations in my family to find people who think pasture is exotic, so there's quite a lot of people there that kind of need a bit of a hand to try vegan powdered food. We see our job as guides to helping people achieve their goals. And yeah, that does sound like a bit of a shit motivational poster, but it's really how we approach our roles. Living healthily and sustainably looks so different for everyone. So we focus on giving the team flexibility and the tools they need to do their job in a way that they see fit, adapting their tone, their resolutions, the way that they approach each case as an individual.

So that scenario, in our onboarding, when you join our CX team, we say that we strive to build a community of Huel-igans so strong that they invite us to their wedding. And I think that so far we're up to about three genuine wedding invites. So we're doing alright. It's definitely inspiring to see so many people who love you and how our products make them feel, and helping them achieve their health nutrition goals. Being able to encourage these customers and provide positive reinforcement is also a great feeling. And we have a whole Slack channel dedicated to sharing some of the amazing stories that customers have sent to us, whether that's someone who wrote in to say that Huel has been a lifesaver because their ADHD medication makes their texture of food revolting for them, or the person who Huel has helped to lose 100 pounds in the lead up to their wedding.

It's not all sunshine and rainbows though. There's that strong community we foster, they hold us accountable, and rightly so. We're constantly pushed on our recipes, our packaging, our policies that will impact on our values. And it's the CX team's job to engage and work with these people in a positive way, whilst ensuring that the community's concerns are addressed internally.

MYCUSTOMER: What you're saying there leads on well to our next question about those brand values. In doing the research for this interview, we looked at the interesting tone of voice that Huel adopt with customers, particularly on social media. Obviously, the issue there is we all struggle with trolls on social media and it seems that Huel support staff are encouraged to be creative and playful with these trolls, and I understand that you've won quite a lot of fans for this approach. Could you tell us a bit about the thinking behind this and how you foster that behaviour in your customer teams?

TOM KIRBY: So, as the brand grew, the different nature of the beast of both our social presence and our support responses became much clearer. And so the social team, basically segmented out into its own pillar within the CX team. It started with the ethos of always being original and never falling in line to be corporate robots. If you look at the likes of Ryanair, Wendy's, Aldi who have built these fantastic personas online, and that type of approach really resonates with our team. We knew going in that a vegan meal powder was going to get a lot of flack, you know, ,where's the meat, comments were going to be coming in thick and fast. So the idea of being able to turn that intrinsically negative task of responding to trolls into something that was fun and creative really helps with morale and motivation. and I think that resonates with the wider customer base.

So how do we foster that within the team? So we want everyone to be themselves in the way that they communicate and really bring through their personality. And that's not just with the social team, that's across the board. We hire these wonderfully engaging funny, positive people. So why wouldn't you want that to come across to your customers and be shown publicly? A big aim with this is that I want to be able to pick a conversation at random and tell you who in the team has wrote that without having to ask – that individuality is the real magic behind our social responses. From a manager's perspective, it's showing consistent support and given them the confidence to take those risks, there's always going to be an occasion where a response doesn't quite land, right. But it's showing them that's okay, we learn we move forward. And most importantly, we just try and have a bit of fun with what we do.

MYCUSTOMER: So just on to our final question. And this is one that we asked all of our guests, if you could you share one piece of advice for fellow customer experience professionals, perhaps something that you wish you had known when you were first starting out in the field that would have benefited you, what woudl it be?

TOM KIRBY: So we've recently gone through personal development goal setting with the team. And in the first drafts, I saw a lot 'I want to work on this project', or 'I want to work as part of this team', 'I want to get promoted'. And the best advice I could give them, I think it's super important for everybody starting out, is to understand how you like to work, and focus on developing those skills, rather than pinpointing a specific team. For example, if I was to give you a problem, where do you naturally go to with your approach to solve it? If someone said, Go and increase CSAT? Would you dive into data to understand worst performing channels, contact types? Would you run a coaching session with the team? Would you add in a new process or tool to engage unhappy customers? Understanding your go-to when your options are completely open, is going to tell you what skills you lean towards. And then you could build from that and it's going to give you a much wider application and a lot more possible opportunities to get involved with things than juat saying you want to work on one specific thing.

Reaching a point of understanding the skills that I like to use and want to use in my day-to-day has also massively helped me not only in performing, but understandinf what career path I wanted to take, what roles I wanted to tak,e what interested me. By nature, if you're interested you engage with something because you find it enjoyable, and if you're working in the way you like to work, you're going to perform much better. And as a leader, you apply that same process to others around you and you're just going to help the way that you delegate and engage your team much more efficiently.

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