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In the eyes of potential customers, Essent is the best option, according to the November 2017 WUA study on online orientation of signing up for an energy contract. In this interview, we speak with Albert de Koning, director of Marketing at Essent. About customer insight as oxygen for marketers, effectiveness of multidisciplinary teams, and about sales as service and service as sales.

Albert de Koning, congratulations on your win in this WUA study. How important is it to you to be the best in the digital arena? What role does having a winning mentality play in this?

“In the end, you want to win for your customers: by offering truly clever, fun solutions. In terms of digital, our focus is on the optimal organization of our services. When you’re constantly occupied with wanting to attract customers and improving the service for your existing customers, then that’ll be appreciated, and it’s good for your customer satisfaction. The most important thing about this leadership position in this WUA study, I think, is that the win is based on customer feedback.”

Do you yourself think it’s important to claim that no. 1 position and to lead in digital?

“Of course, you want to win in the digital arena. But: I don’t view the digital arena as a separate world. Customers experience digital service and expect the same experience in non-digital service, and vice versa. Online and offline worlds intermingle, and it’s not about a separate expectation consumers have about energy anymore either. As energy provider, you’re in a position of service to people’s homes. In that home environment, there are multiple service providers active, so those expectations aren’t isolated anymore either.”

“Essent truly transitioned from being an energy provider to a service provider at home. In the role of a service provider, we help customers use new options that make life easier, more sustainable, and smarter, and eventually create a comfortable home. In this, all sorts of digital tools and channels play an important part, not in the least in understanding our customers and giving them the right advice. We set up an elaborate service for this, aside from providing electricity and gas. We’re also offering solar panels now, isolation, heat pumps, smart light remotes, we’ve got an app that lets you control your smart thermostat at home. Digital tools offer us the chance to inform our clients, to inspire them, and give them advice.”

What is your approach? What’s going so well? What can other digital supervisors learn from your approach?

“In 2017, we let go of the division in functional teams. In my department, we had marketing teams, communication teams, and a digital team. Now, we’ve done a complete U-turn, creating multidisciplinary teams, with all different types of expertise together, so teams can focus on a part of the customer journey. Digital experts now work closely together with communication advisors and marketers, etcetera.”

“What’s fun – and good – about this, is that each expert in each team sees the impact of his work more often, and more easily, while he or she can also pick up speed. That boosts energy as well as results, with a focus on learning and continuing to improve. It’s more fun, and more effective, to work on a shared plan together in such a direct way. The WUA study also provides us with a lot of customer feedback and insights that we can then use to innovate further.”

“Our approach, then, is firstly having the option of improving continuously, secondly focusing on the customer journey, and thirdly, having the team think in an omnichannel way. Marketers work on both offline and online channels. Teams work together to make plans and don’t have to persuade each other about channels or products because they work together on making an impact for our customers. We act from different points of view, and because these insights were brought together from the beginning, you create more synergy.”

“Yes, I’m really proud of this team. We’ve started to work together in a completely different way, with a completely different type of teams, which in itself is a huge change. It’s amazing to see this leading to successes. Of course, we’re still learning in this, and growing.”

From a consumer’s perspective, there shouldn’t be a difference (anymore) between service and sales. Are you capable of breaking with silos with Essent or: are you planning on doing this?

“Sales is service and service is sales. The connecting element between service and sales is that customers can easily make use of your service. When customers can do this, you can advise them properly as well, help them buy a new product, or answer their questions. From a conversation like that, you can go on and think about what else you can do for the customer. It’s about the entire customer journey.”

What role do customer research and being customer-centric play in your daily work, and in the teams that you’re responsible for?

“Customer insight is crucial to good ideas, to campaigns and propositions: customer insight is the oxygen of marketers. How we handle customer research and customer-centric working in reality? We work with web analysts who track and trace insights all day, and we have our own usability lab. We have marketers who listen in on customer service, we organize pizza sessions in which we invite prospects or customers to discuss all kinds of topics, and of course, we pre- and post-test our campaigns with our customers. That way, we can adjust and improve.”

Do you free up time to really meet those customers, and do you join the pizza sessions?

“Yes, at the start of a campaign, I often go up and listen in on the call center to hear which customer questions we’re getting. We talk through the performance with each other, of course, so I get a lot of customer insight from that as well. We also have sprint reviews of different projects, that sprung from customer insights.”

What KPIs do you use in the digital area, what buttons do you adjust in order to excel in digital?

“Traffic, conversion, digital sales, and the CES scores are among the KPIs we use.”

Have you noticed the CES scores become more important?

“Online customer satisfaction is very important, of course, and that CES score has definitely become an increasingly important KPI. Earlier on in this interview, I talked about sales and service, and that being able to use service easily is a connecting element in this. If that’s your point of view, then ease of use – as expressed in the CES score – is also an important KPI.”

What are your digital challenges for 2018?

“The biggest challenge for 2018, I think, is in our digital platform, both front, and back. In the front, we want to improve our funnels, and our goal is to create an optimal customer experience, which at the same time, presents a challenge.”

What digital innovations are you working on now, and what developments are on the roadmap?

“For me, that’s really the use of programmatic marketing.”

What do you think is the Next Big Thing in digital in your market?

“The Next Big Thing, to me, is using programmatic marketing more. Why? Because with programmatic marketing, you can have the right conversation with your customer at the right moment. When you talk about ease of use: at that moment, you’re really talking to the customer, instead of just broadcasting information. Because: as a marketer, you want to be able to empathize with your customers. You have to know how the mindset of your separate target groups works. What message do you want to send at what time, and to which target group? Programmatic marketing tools make this possible omnichannel; customer-journey thinking is an essential part of this.”

What is your ultimate goal and dream to accomplish in business?

“The international energy market is in major transition, and therefore, so is Essent. In this transition, my dream is already partially coming true: we’ve changed our role from offering electricity and gas to a much more elaborate at-home service. We’re already making that home environment smarter, more sustainable, and more comfortable. We’ve expanded our portfolio, we’re trying to inform our customers the best we can during orientation, and of course, we aim to reach a good flow during transactions.”

“When you’re talking about the next step in terms of a business goal or dream, it’d be effective use of programmatic marketing for the customer. And sustainability, which is a goal for Essent, but one for me as well. All our customers receive green energy from Essent, electricity from European wind. And we also introduced a new product in October 2017: Double Green. That product consists of Dutch wind energy and green gas. This way, we’re offering our customers a double way of living sustainably. We’re shaping the energy transition, and ensuring everyone can participate.”