How SmartestEnergy puts the spark into B2B customer experience
Turning the dial on customer experience can be an unenviable mandate for those tasked with doing so in the utilities sector, especially when it's a B2B environment. We spoke to Helene Barilley, customer experience manager at SmartestEnergy, to discuss her approach.
When it launched in 2001 in the UK, SmartestEnergy was labelled a 'next generation' energy company, rapidly expanding to become one of the leading B2B purchasers and sellers of independent generation; a supplier of renewable electricity and a provider of demand response services.
Its success has allowed the business to expand activities around the globe, including the US. However, the fundamentals of this success are rooting in its approach to CX, as we found out by talking to Helene Barilley, customer experience manager for the brand.
CB: Helene, thank you for joining us. Can we start by you sharing your personal journey with customer experience?
HB: I’ve previously worked as a consultant before SmartestEnergy. Customer experience was linked to projects I was involved in. It was then I realised the topic was very important to me and I had a passion for it. I become more involved in CX projects such as digitising an insurance subscription journey, CX training and coaching. SmartestEnergy provided a pure CX role with potential.
CB: So now you are at SmartestEnergy. Could you explain what makes SmartestEnergy different from the other large energy companies?
HB: We don’t own any generation assets, so we see our customers as our only assets.
CB: Was customer-led thinking already alive in the business when you arrived?
HB: It was a new role, so when I arrived we started to define what was best for SmartestEnergy. Whilst we’ve always been a customer-focused business, rapid growth has its strains on the day-to-day delivery.
CB: You are in a sector related to utilities which is not always recognised for offering amazing customer experiences. What’s different about SmartestEnergy?
HB: You are right, our sector is very far behind the players in other markets. It’s a trend which is there to change. We look to go beyond our customers’ need. We have very loyal customers which we know is because of our exceptional customer service evidenced in an NPS which outperforms our competition.
We don’t own any generation assets, so we see our customers as our only assets.
CB: What are your key responsibilities and where does customer experience sit within the organisation?
HB: My role is to improve the customer experience by owning the CX strategy. This includes journey mapping, listening and responding to customers managing through our Voice of the Customer programme, CX delivery improvements, managing our Customer Focus model, keeping track of NPS and ensuring our customers standards are alive and delivered across the organisation. In addition, I chair our Customer Focus Champions Community, embedding our ‘Think Customer’ value.
CB: You’ve been with SmartestEnergy for over 18 months, how have you seen customer-led thinking evolve in that time?
HB: Customer Focus is now a company-wide mandate. We all talk and think about the customer, not just me. I hear ‘customers’ mentioned in meetings more than ever before. Importantly, top management has really embraced customer experience thinking, which as we all know is key for backing of a CX programme.
CB: What is the CX strategy? Does it differ by customer types?
HB: Our CX strategy is a global one. We focus on both our internal and external customers seeking to deliver stand out customer experiences for them. At a more granular level when looking at the customer journey or at customer type priorities, inevitably it differs
CB: How do you ensure you are demonstrating value to the business from customer experience (is this in terms of savings, incremental sales, brand distinction, retention etc.)?
HB: We are a B2B company, and in that environment, the difference is the sales cycles are typically much longer. So there is a much greater emphasis on delivering consistently great CX throughout the relationship. But the customer KPI’s we created last year as well as our NPS performance tell us we are in good shape. Plus we were nominated for the Innovation of the Year Energy Awards for our CX recently.
CB: How do you ensure everyone in the organisation, especially colleagues not interacting with customers, are aligned to the CX ambitions?
HB: The Customer Focus Indicator is a common board KPI, so at the highest level our CX contribution is represented. We also have Customer Focus plans which are defined and delivered by every function across the organisation. For those in non-customer facing roles, it's easier to demonstrate how a process or systems improvement benefits a colleague through greater efficiency (which ultimately helps external customers). We’ve also included a customer consideration component for all IT projects to ensure we think about the customer benefits every time.
CB: What has been your biggest success since embarking on this journey?
HB: We were very proud to be recognised with a nomination for our endeavours at the Energy Awards this month. Internally this show real progress to our colleagues.
CB: What role does data and digital play in enabling better customer experiences?
HB: It’s key. It starts with getting the right data in to improve workflows. We are investing in our CRM capabilities to provide consistent and great digital experiences. We are also working on a new self-serve customer portal to give our customers more control. We want to be in a place where we provide personalised experiences to our customers and this will be enabled by technology.
CB: What are you most proud of delivering within the programme?
HB: First, creating the Customer Focus Champions Community. We have a very motivated group who can be there representing the customer across the business when we can’t be. They can take the CX message to the wider work force. It’s a huge achievement to establish these roles, which colleagues take on, on top of their own responsibilities. Secondly, we now have a board level customer KPI. We have connected our performance rewards to the doing what is right for the customer.
CB: You are clearly making progress, how do measure success?
HB: External recognition in the trade press and award nominations certainly helps. Importantly we are always looking to see an increase in NPS and our internal customer focus indicator. We also know we are making ground whilst we have great employee engagement.
CB: How much does customer feedback shape your future priorities? Can you share what next you are working on to improve your customer experience?
HB: We established a Voice of the Customer programme this year. So now we can listen and respond in real-time using a digital interaction with our customers. It’s a huge source for great improvements and ideas. It means we keep up with their requirements and can help us prioritise our improvements.
CB: We see organisations awarded for ‘high satisfaction’ scores struggling commercially. Accountability and the right CX target operating model are two factors often under-appreciated chasing the ‘wow’ moments of CX. What would you say are key to keeping on track?
HB: It needs to be both a top down and a bottom up approach. With the board focused on CX investments through to those delivering customer experiences understanding their importance. To achieve this critically you need to make everyone accountable for CX. As well as a CX KPI to evaluate every project to avoid spending resources on projects which have no customer benefit.
CB: Finally, where do you take your CX inspiration from?
HB: In the energy sector I am very impressed by the customer experience focus of Octopus. They have a very strong brand identity and a unique way of bringing it to life, making it meaningful and valuable when interacting with customers.
CB: That’s great advice and thank you for your insights Helene!
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