8th Jun 2015
In May 2010 the company became the first in Britain to supply eco-friendly gas, allowing its proportion of renewable energy supplied to grow from 24.1% in 2007 to 51.1% by 2011. And it is still the only company in the UK to offer a ‘green gas’ tariff – which comes with a free from fracking promise. Not surprisingly, Ecotricity – which is run as a dividend-free company – is now one of the fastest growing independent energy suppliers in Britain, doubling in size to 150,000 customers in the last 12 months alone.
‘It’s a mission we’re on to change the way energy is made and used,’ says Vince, who once placed a full page ad in The Guardian, featuring his mobile number and challenging Richard Branson to call him and have ‘a chat’ about climate change. An ad which he said ‘got me a fair amount of calls’ from regular readers.
‘I’m the only shareholder,’ he says ‘and I prefer to call myself the guardian of the company rather than the owner.’ He adds, ‘It’s my belief the UK can be totally powered by wind, sun and wave – in that order of abundance – and it’s a message that seems to be resonating. We’ve doubled our staff in the last year. We’re a company that definitely thinks differently.’
Ecotricity is redefining how energy providers perform by being 100% transparent about the price it pays for wholesale energy. In January this year, it announced gas charges would be reduced in May by 6.1%, the largest of any reductions announced – and it happened ‘because we have the will as well as the ability to pass savings on; the others don’t have the will,’ says Vince. Not only this, but perhaps its ‘Holy Grail’ offering is having just one single energy tariff. The rest of the sector is very different. Last year, in a report to Parliament by energy regulator Ofgem, energy providers were lambasted for having more than 1,440 tariffs, a third of which were deemed to be of ‘poor value’, and found to be the cause of great confusion and complaint amongst consumers. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Ecotricity is consistently the energy company with the fewest complaints. Last autumn it won this accolade for the fifth successive year, with just 0.86 complaints per 1,000 customers. The other ‘big six’ suppliers lost 2 million customers between them in the same period, and complaints to them increased by a third, to 270,000.
‘We’re hugely proud of our low customer complains figures,’ says Vince. ‘In the energy sector today, I think the very term customer service has become an oxymoron. It’s been so pared back by the others, that it’s now almost non-existent. I believe it’s become disservice. The obstacles presented to people just to get through to an energy supplier have become a nightmare.’
Of course, when you’re the relative newcomer (although at 20 years old this year, Vince says the business is not that young any more), it’s arguably easier to win hearts and minds. But, as Ecotricity increasingly becomes more mainstream, can it really retain its customer service credentials, and avoid what Vince claims is the complacency of others? On this, he is absolutely clear: ‘The whole company was set up to be different,’ he claims. ‘You can’t change the status quo when you’re a part of it. So we never wanted to copy the systems and processes of other energy suppliers in the first place. That would have been crazy, and that’s why I think we’ll grow better. So yes, while we measure certain industry rules – for instance, we like to answer phone calls within 30 seconds, and we like to deal with people’s queries there and then, nine times out of ten – the whole customer communication story is different. We will talk about our values when people call us, not about why we’re doing things wrong.’
An asset, Vince accepts, is that by having a single tariff, he avoids having hoards of angry and confused customers that don’t know where they stand. But that doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his laurels. As customer numbers have grown, he’s also had to grow the numbers of his service staff to a level he thinks will be needed to ensure the contact customers do have with the business is satisfactory.
‘There’s occasionally a lag between growth in customers and the arrival of new service staff. But we aim to have one contact centre employee per 600 customers, which we know is a much better ratio than the main providers,’ he says. He adds: ‘In establishing our contact centres, we got rid of jargon and just wanted to put ourselves in customer shoes. When things do go wrong, we have systems in place to push feedback directly on to me, and crucially, we have a team solely focused on fixing issues fast. This group acts independently from the rest of the business, so they are totally impartial. They can then report back to me about what they’ve heard, so improvements can be made.
‘We’re proud to say that in our first three years, not a single complaint went to the ombudsman’s office, and since then, not a single complaint has ever been upheld by it.’
According to Vince, not losing touch is a cultural issue rather than one of scale and he’s confident the culture of the business is solid. ‘Nowadays, social media can be the biggest threat to a company and a simple mistake can go viral. But we have a Facebook and Twitter presence to read and respond to social media posts,’ he says. ‘A big story is not something I worry about.
‘You’ll always get the very noisy and challenging customers but our message is – just call us, we don’t mind. I take calls myself, and will personally try to resolve any worries customers might have.’ This is a picture of dedication one can’t quite see being mirrored by any of the heads of other energy suppliers, but Vince is clear his involvement levels won’t change. ‘Unlike some of our competitors, we actually have landline numbers that people can use to call us. We don’t want to charge people to talk to us. Companies that continue to do that just haven’t got their priorities right. They just leave you thinking they’re rowing in the wrong direction.’
Commercial realities have meant that in recent years, contact centre opening times have had to expand, and Ecotricity has recently opened its lines on a Saturday. ‘This is a consequence of getting bigger,’ he says, ‘and we’ve expanded to 8am to 8pm opening hours. But we don’t intend to go mad on this.’
Linked to customer needs and also because of the company’s aim to have as low a carbon presence as possible, the business wants to become an increasingly online brand, where customer issues are managed virtually rather than over the phone. ‘We’re launching an app later this year, enabling people to record their meter readings, and gradually we’ll append other services onto it,’ Vince says. ‘We really want to do more e-billing to reduce paper and ink usage. Some customers have already told me they don’t have a computer, and don’t want to go electronic. We’re fine with that though, and we say they need not worry. We have a responsibility for all of our customers to be able to reach us, but by the same token, we don’t want to get left behind with technology.’
There’s a definite sense Vince is fighting to improve the prevailing system – trying single-handedly to rejuvenate the negative customer service reputation that he knows the sector still suffers from. ‘I’m not sure the regulators have really done anything to improve the standards of service energy providers have to give,’ he says dismissively. ‘We actually compile the complaints per thousand data ourselves, and put press releases out,’ he chuckles. ‘Maybe we’re doing the job the regulator should be doing.’
Dale believes he’s not alone in feeling annoyed that government support for green energy has become like wading through treacle. In November 2014, Ecotricity announced it would not be attempting any new windpower applications in England because of the current political climate and would instead concentrate on Scotland. ‘The Conservatives came to power claiming they’d be the greenest government to date; Cameron was even out hugging huskies,’ laughs Vince. ‘But we’ve seen support for wind farms come, then go, then come, then go again. My hope is for a change of government and a change of heart.’
Vince tells me that on a single cold (and very windy) January day this year, 30% of the UK’s power that day came from wind power alone. And it’s Ecotricity’s desire both to capture this, and capture the goodwill of its customers that is literally a breath of fresh – wind powered – air. ‘There’s so much potential in the green energy market,’ he says. ‘I know the other competitor suppliers are now looking at us. We don’t mind acting as catalysts if that’s what we have to do to achieve change.’
Just how the other suppliers respond, he claims, will be interesting to see. But Vince is a man that attracts admirers. Even Richard Branson eventually rang him back. ‘Yes, I remember that day well. Branson was at Davos or something like that, about to deliver a talk on global warming, and I was walking down the street near home. I thought it was a joke at first. It took him 20 minutes to convince me it was really him! He didn’t come for tea though!’