Imagine any business saying that it doesn’t put the customer first. Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? However, we all know that while customers should be a business’ primary focus, the challenges that often stem from rapid growth and success can become barriers to this. Small businesses have to use tenacity and cunning to be successful. But as a business gets bigger and becomes more complex, retaining that entrepreneurial customer thinking, and therefore acting directly in the customer’s interests becomes more difficult to do.
I co-founded a gas distribution business called Pennine Natural Gas in 1996. For me and my business partner early success was completely about putting ourselves in the customers’ shoes. In a market not known for its service excellence, this ‘thinking like a customer’ or ‘TLC’ was our route to differentiation, getting established and growing. Essentially it was our personal take on entrepreneurship; thinking directly around customer challenges, opportunities and possibilities, rather than processes and procedures. Our size and ambition meant that we were automatically personalising products to fit customer needs. Operating in a market dominated by the energy ‘big six’, we were determined to build a business that, no matter how large we got, wouldn’t become one of ‘them’ in terms of attitude; we would always treat customers individually.
In 2006, having established ourselves and serving a growing number of customers in this way, Pennine was acquired by Gazprom, and later became Gazprom Energy. Ten years on, as founders we have retained much of that TLC at the helm of what is now a 250-employee business energy retailer serving in excess of 20,000 customers. And despite now being the second-largest provider of gas to UK businesses we still have no ambition to be one of the energy sector’s traditional ‘big six’ with our original attitude to entrepreneurial customer service remaining true today.
However, that doesn’t mean we’ve stayed the same or haven’t had to learn any lessons. We’ve had to evolve the way we work, and keeping a check on customer thinking has been getting harder to do as we’ve grown. As any business amasses scale and has to deliver more complex products or services to more people, operational procedure and commercial complexity can get in the way of staying responsive and personal. So here’s what we did:
Combine small and big business practices
Big business processes are essential to managing things when your business scales, but shouldn’t smother entrepreneurial spirit. We recognised a need to adopt two types of practice, ensuring that the right emphasis is achieved at the right time. By getting closer to our customers we understood their needs and were able to translate them quickly to into future product plans or use them to change the way we brought customers on board and the account management choices we gave them. For example since 2013 we have analysed feedback from close to 3,000 customers and we have implemented many new services as a direct result, such as paperless billing, meter reading reminders and comprehensive market reports.
Create separation from the top
Running different business approaches in parallel can be complex. As a management team, having experienced the challenges of trying to do this collectively, we now play to our strengths, with myself as MD driving entrepreneurial commercial and operations teams, while our CEO focuses on financial planning, performance and measurement. One of the biggest changes we’ve seen since our CEO joined in 2014 is the introduction of strategic KPIs across the business and this has had a really positive impact; our managers now feel more accountable for performance and empowered to do something about it.
Remove barriers that don’t need to exist
Despite segmenting our management responsibilities into corporate and entrepreneurial focuses, we recognised the need to merge the business more in other ways. This was about breaking down barriers that obstructed our delivery of excellent customer service, from on boarding, to supply, billing, or service review. We know that having our commercial and operational teams close together is really important for collaboration which is one of the primary reasons we are moving offices next year, giving us the space to do just that. It has also meant our gas and energy trading team giving daily ’stand up’ briefings to account managers, so that they know and understand what related issues are going to affect their customers that day.
Steve Jobs once claimed that Apple was ‘the biggest start-up on the planet’, putting much of the company’s renowned success down to its ability to think small and deliver products focused on what the customer wants. Perhaps ironically, many ambitious entrepreneurs obsess with ‘thinking big’ as their route to success. But then growing businesses find themselves trying to find a way back to their entrepreneurial roots, in particular, remembering that customers are why they are in business in the first place. In reality most businesses of any size need a mix of entrepreneurial flair and corporate structure. The secret is recognising when the balance between the two needs a reshuffle.
Jon Feingold is chief commercial officer at Gazprom Energy.