“The initial COPC Inc. certification was the glue, the factor in bringing it all together. It brought a better understanding of the responsibilities of each department in the overall performance. It brought departments together, realizing we are all part of this chain that enables the results towards our customers. It brought us structure in the best way possible, together with a mental framework of why we are doing this.”
– Cindy Kroon, Vice President Netherlands/UK Business Area Customer & Solutions at Vattenfall
COPC Inc. recently spoke with Cindy Kroon, Vice President Netherlands/UK Business Area Customer & Solutions at Vattenfall. She is responsible for all customer-facing activities regarding all of Vattenfall’s brands in the Netherlands and the UK.
Cindy has worked in the customer experience (CX) field for over two decades. She joined Vattenfall in 2003 and was promoted to her current role of Vice President in 2011. Cindy is a firm believer in COPC Inc., the COPC Customer Experience (CX) Standard, and is a member of the COPC Standards Committee. Cindy and the Vattenfall Team have significantly improved the customer experience and operational efficiency during the past ten years. We have spoken to Cindy and asked how COPC Inc. has contributed to the success of Vattenfall in the Netherlands and the UK.
This virtual interview was conducted in January 2021 by Kevin Campbell, Managing Director EMEA and Wojciech Krasniewski, Director of Sales, EMEA.
Q: Could you provide us with a brief introduction and overview about your role, the challenges you face and your relationship with COPC Inc.?
Vattenfall is an energy provider. We own a 23% market share in the Netherlands. I joined the company in 2003 and became the Vice President of Customers & Solutions in 2011 (basically responsible for everything related to the customers). My role includes all of our brands. I handle both complaints and happy customers.
Our relationship with COPC Inc. began ten years ago when we started our COPC Inc. certification process in 2010.
Q: Could you briefly explain the competitive landscape within the utility industry in the Netherlands and how you are differentiating your brand against the competition?
“Enable fossil-free living within one generation” is our mission. All employees are combined in this engagement. Everything we do is all about guaranteeing the best product and providing help to customers to make the right choices in their households and businesses in the long term.
Every customer matters. We are speaking to real people. We are not just cashing checks. This strengthens our competitive position in the market. We don’t only say that we are customer-focused. We own it and live it. We invest to encourage customers to use renewable energy.
Q: We value our partnership with you and the trust you have given us. Can you briefly explain the number of years you have been working with COPC Inc. and how the relationship originally began?
We have a 10-year partnership with COPC Inc. In the beginning, we were a bunch of unorganized managers, passionate about customer service and people, but everyone had their own way of working. We were doing the best we could because we believed in it, but we were missing an integral process. We missed the glue to bring it together.
COPC arrived at the right time and offered us this glue – an integral framework on how to steer our business and how to measure the success. All in this passion we share for our customers, we deliver the best we can with an economical perspective.
At first, we were scared of the instructions, but once we gained a bit more experience, we realized that it’s a mix of having both our processes and execution in place. We learned that as long as it’s not outside of the framework of COPC Inc., we can deviate a little. That, I think, made us grow at a similar pace – we got bigger and more professional, as did our partnership. You were with us when we wanted to improve.
Q: Can you remember where the certification journey began and your thoughts at the time?
I did not relate at first. I saw COPC Inc. certification as a big list of rules. But, I often see that people who are the most hesitant at first end up being the most supportive, and that is what happened to me with COPC Inc.
I was very reluctant because it seemed like hard work, with very structured processes and lots of regulations. Knowing the company at that time, I did not believe we could ever get certified but would just give up halfway, as we had done on other projects. We lacked follow-through when things got tough. We took the COPC Customer Experience (CX) Standard quite literally in the beginning, and we were forcing ourselves to change. What we learned over time during the partnership is that the book is not to be taken that literal. It is about the philosophy behind it. We learned that if we go a certain direction for the same reason the book requires something, then we are in that same objective. I appreciate that in a partnership.
We were scared at first about the scoring but then realized it is a mix of both, rather than the end goal. We grew together, you were with us to evolve.
Q: Specifically, we would be interested to understand how COPC Inc. and the certification have helped you to improve your customer experience?
The initial COPC Inc. certification was the glue, the factor in bringing it all together. It brought a better understanding of the responsibilities of each department in the overall performance. It brought departments together, realizing we are all part of this chain that enables the results towards our customers. It brought us structure in the best way possible, together with a mental framework of why we are doing this.
We have large locations over in the Netherlands, and building a business even in the same city is a challenge, but to have it spread across the whole country is even more of a challenge in driving consistency.
We know that we wouldn’t be where we are without challenging ourselves, and that’s the interesting and best thing about the COPC CX Standard – it made sure that we deliver what we’re made to deliver, but if we are not challenged, we don’t move forward. Continuous improvement needs some level of improvement to start off with.
Some people were surprised that they were on the interview list to begin with. They did not see how their work related to the metrics. COPC Inc. provided the glue that we were missing, from the financial steering to the HR process, the training, the quality monitoring, and the digital — the everything.
Q: What was the impact of digital assisted channels in the past five years?
We started digital ten years ago with two separate teams (sales and service), which were completely aside from the rest of the company. The rest of the company was not aware of what was happening with this department. They were not following the COPC Inc. requirements because they considered it only for calls. There was nothing in the COPC CX Standard that said digital. As the COPC CX Standard had evolved, we were at the same pace because we were trying to integrate it as well.
Now we have reintroduced the digital team as part of the customer service journey. They steer and lead on everything, this mixes the best of both. Like every big company, we are also struggling that the majority of our people, including myself, were not raised in the digital era. I haven’t been trained in the digital profession, so it’s not my natural background, but we are evolving, as COPC Inc. is, and we’re going fast enough if we look at the response of our customers and where we are with the maturity of the Digital Department. I think we’re doing good enough. We are not a digital company, we’re an energy company, but we are evolving in our digital capabilities quite fast, I believe.
Q: As you have integrated digital technologies, what were the challenges?
The digital people really knew what they were talking about, but in our company, they were a bit ahead of their time, so they weren’t understood. Also, the market wasn’t asking for it yet. But in the beginning, we did implement our customer service platforms anyway. We would have been nowhere if we hadn’t started at that point in time. The Digital Department was like an island, the rest of the company wasn’t aware of what was happening, but we saw that the interaction with these customers was growing through the digital channels. We were way more experienced in all the other channels than in digital. But with these new channels, we were really reinforcing one another.
Q: How would you describe how COPC Inc. certification supports your ongoing CX improvement initiatives?
Staff and customer management are about people with dreams and frustrations, anxieties and talents. People make the difference in the end, not the systems, not the processes, and not even the product! People want to deliver on the capabilities they have.
I introduced the upside-down pyramid at one point. I believe that we should enable all our staff to interact with our customers in the best way possible. The entire organization is there to accommodate and enable the people interacting with our customers.
My name is beneath these letters that are sent to our customers.
I’m sometimes disappointed in myself that after ten years of doing this, I still do not have the highest NPS (Net Promoter Score), I still have complaining customers, we still make big errors, and we still have incidents to fix. We are never done, and there’s no magic: this is just hard work, day-in and day-out. Do the best you can, and if it makes a difference to one customer, then in the end, it will pay off.
It’s not a trick, it’s the same thing we’ve been doing for ten years now. The transparency of the activity that’s going on in the business is also something that helps with a high-performance organization. People know what the results are, they know the targets, they know where we are within our overall objectives, the new initiatives running to try and improve the business, and that’s all levels, not just senior management.
Every year when we go up for recertification, and we’re measured again by these very nice smiling but very critical audit teams, we just want to perform right. We want these external guys who come in to say, “yes, you are still part of one of the best customer service organizations in the world.”
We still have things to improve, but if we’re almost there, then we know we can improve. It’s a constant way of keeping us sharp every year with an external perspective. It’s hard on a day-to-day basis to naturally zoom out and see the big picture.
I’ve gotten to learn in the past 17 years that everything has its own pace, and as a big company, we don’t have to go fast as long as we don’t miss out. Being too ambitious might get us out of step too early, but we don’t want to miss the boat either.
Q: What was the impact of remote working on your company and people, and what are the results today?
Surprisingly, remote working has not changed our business. We started slightly working from home in the customer service department a couple of years ago. Of course, there were personal profile preferences, so some never worked from home, and some did more often.
In 2020 we did a testing day not knowing that two weeks after it was announced that everybody would soon work from home in the Netherlands. When this lockdown was decided, it was of course, very scary, so we were happy that we were safe at home.
It’s working just fine, and our performance metrics were hardly hit. I think from the start until now, in the 17 years I’ve worked with this company, if I look at my performance dashboard over 2020, it is one of my most successful years in all aspects. We almost met all of the high-performance standards and targets, including the financial ones, in a very tough year where nine months out of 12, my people worked from home. It broadened our horizons, and thank God it is really possible!
We had never foreseen that we could allow the majority of our staff to work-from-home and have a better work-life balance, less traveling time and costs. We had to find the new optimum.
Because we want to enable fossil-free living within one generation, we are now investigating a completely different balance between being in the office and why we are going in the office, and how we should accommodate people in a structural way, so they don’t need to get into a car to go to work.
Q: Other clients of ours have found that COPC Inc. certification resulted in an increase of efficiency, leading to a cost reduction of 5 to 10%. Would you say your results were similar or even better? What did you think were the initial benefits of certification?
Our cost to serve was around 40€ per contact ten years ago, and we are now at 18€, which is more than a 50% cost reduction. A couple of years ago, we were fighting against an outsourcing decision that was already taken in Germany and executed in the entire customer service department because we couldn’t get the cost-to-serve down. In the Netherlands, we didn’t do that, but we are now at a similar, if not a little lower cost-to-serve as the Germans are, and with a relatively comparable cost measurement metric.
One is not better than the other, but we did it in a more elegant way, with a more organic flow. This is one of the things that, as managers, we are very proud of and had the time and the trust to do so. This was a long way without any big reorganization or big reduction of our staff. We achieved it due to enabling our people and applying processes as well as the efficiency gains achieved through adopting COPC Inc.’s techniques.
Q: What do you see being your organization’s goals for customer experience, long-term for the next five years?
The Netherlands is really engaged in energy transition, and we often describe it as the third big revolution. The way we consume more energy, the resources we use, the damage we do to the planet, but also the dependency we have on energy, it’s almost like a bomb waiting to explode in our faces. So, we have to literally change everything we do, our consumption, the way we generate the energy, how we pay for it, our own rules in it as human beings, and also the rules of big companies. Of course, that is a huge topic for us. People want advice on how to transform their houses into CO2-neutral establishments. In the next couple of years, giving advice on questions related to energy transition to customers will become a much bigger part of our day-to-day jobs. We have to make sure we have the right people on board, with the right profile settings, and the right training should be given to them as well. We have to prepare for the changes this will bring to our workforce management department because we don’t know the transaction volume these needs will generate. The role of our agents will change.
There’s also a lot of political and regulatory pressure on liberating the market and lowering energy costs. On the other hand, consumption is going down because it is good for nature and good for everyone. Competition is increasing as well. In general, our commodity profitability is going down, and that of course, is something I need to fight with new propositions, new margin structures, new customer bases, and new growth models. We, of course, still have a very big obligation to stabilize our profitability; profit margins are under pressure.
Finally, we are expanding and experimenting with robotics. More and more people are using these new channels, and this steering and management are very different than the non-digital channels.
Q: What is your general feedback about partnering with COPC Inc. and our services?
I’m just so pleased with how our partnership evolved over the past ten years. One of our strengths is that we are able to reach out to one another and always collaborate.
If you come across examples in the world that are dealing with the same challenges we do, please keep sharing them with us. It gives us inspiration, or at least a little bit of recognition that we’re not alone, so we always appreciate it!
I never regretted us making the decision to start with the COPC Inc. certification process. It was difficult in the beginning, but as a manager, I believe that where there is difficulty, there’s probably value. I was the biggest critic in the beginning, and I have been the biggest fan throughout the past ten years. It’s a good match between us, we feel like we are an expert company and very driven, and we know our stuff, but you guys do too. So, we have a partner from outside who challenges us, but also compliments us now and then on the really valuable stuff you do to help us support our business growth.
There’s nothing romantic about it. It’s just hard work, day-in and day-out, for you and for us. It’s good to have a professional partner that understands that and still challenges you.