The customer is always right. For Maura Clark, this old adage has never been truer than in today’s business environment. Clark leads a business in an industry that is known for its tough competition and pressures to be at the top.
She is president of Direct Energy Business, a $4.5 billion division of Direct Energy, which provides electricity and natural gas solutions to businesses across North America. To overcome the economic conditions, remain on top of the energy industry, defeat the competition and answer the pressures of the market, she has had to keep the company focused on customer needs.
“All of our customers are feeling the pressure, and it just calls upon you to be a stronger leader through difficult external market conditions,” Clark says. “This kind of external environment and a very competitive landscape just really calls upon you to be extremely sharp, and it doesn’t leave much cushion for missteps.”
Clark’s leadership and the company’s ability to understand the customer and find opportunities have allowed the business to be a growth division within Direct Energy. The key moving forward will be to continue to listen to the customer and continue to differentiate the business from its fierce competition.
Here’s how Maura Clark has used the voice of the customer to continue growing in a tough industry and economy.
Differentiate your business
In any line of business, it’s good to have something that customers can identify as a differentiator. In today’s economy, everybody is experiencing similar challenges and obstacles and it will be those who rise to the top that will win.
“I’m not sure that our experience is really all that different from what many other business leaders would face and in fact, from our perspective, what we’re going through is probably no different than what many of our customers are experiencing,” Clark says. “I think it’s simply just a really difficult time to be in business.”
When you operate in an industry where there isn’t much difference between your company and your competition, you have to look for anything you can that will help make your business stand out among the rest.
“We’ve actually had tremendous financial success and we’ve managed to grow our business through the environment, so I think the overarching challenge is how to continue to grow a business in a very competitive environment,” Clark says. “In a commodity-based business, it’s hard to differentiate ourselves from the competition. It’s very hard to differentiate through products and it’s very hard to differentiate the end-user experience. You really have to think about the things you can do to set you apart from the competition and that usually has to do with the customer interface.”
How customers view your business, your products, or your services is what sells them on your company. You have to make sure you are doing what you can to make them happy and coming back for more.
“Increasingly, I think it’s all about how you differentiate yourself through the customer experience,” she says. “Its how that initial sales encounter goes when you’re trying to advise your customers around the choices they have and managing their energy needs. Then it comes up again in how easy it is for them to actually do business with you, whether that’s on the front end of signing up and executing the contract or whether it’s months down the road where they might have a question or a problem and how well we do in those sorts of encounters. Customers are getting way more discerning too, because it is so competitive and because so many other industries have really broken new ground in terms of defining the customer experience; you have to work that much harder to get people excited.”
Listen to the customer
If it’s the customer who will help bring your business to the top, then you have to be willing to listen to what they have to say. Set up ways to allow them to voice their opinions.
“We try hard to listen to the customer, and I think the things that we have done in the last couple of years that have really allowed us to really think about that customer experience are we’ve held a series of customer listening sessions as well as business partner and channel partner listening sessions,” Clark says. “We’ve taken quite a bit of time as a leadership team and throughout the organization to really listen to what the customer experience is like for our customers and what needs and requirements they have that we could do a better job of meeting.”
In order to make these sessions worth your company’s while, you have to make sure you get people involved in that process who can take what customers say and really make a difference in how your company operates.
“My entire leadership team is required to attend these sessions and we often have folks from all of the different functional areas, not just sales, but people who would be responsible for operations and so on attend these sessions,” Clark says. “They can hear from the horse’s mouth as it were, just what it’s like to be a customer and what things are important to them, how we’ve done well, times where we could have done better and it’s always a mixture of good feedback and sometimes not so good feedback. It’s unbelievably helpful to us as we think about making decisions around how we invest in our business to understand and really partner with our customers to understand what’s important to them.”
While the customer certainly has a big effect on how you could improve your product or services that they use, you can’t rely on them alone. It is very helpful to have some other way of measuring your customer satisfaction.
“We also use net promoter score,” she says. “It’s a measure of customer satisfaction that is actually one of our annual bonus targets. We’ve worked very hard to really institutionalize the thinking around this metric. We have lots of communications around how we’re doing. We share the results of our monthly metric and we share the things that our customers are saying so the voice of the customer is quite audible to our people.”
Getting this type of feedback and measurement is very valuable, but you can’t keep doing the same old thing once you have that information.
“Everybody can always challenge themselves around are you getting the basics right,” she says. “Just getting the basics right can be challenging, but you really have to understand the customer needs as deeply as you possibly can. We’ve historically thought about our customers according to the volume of consumption, but within those categories there are different needs and wants. It’s really taking that understanding of customer needs and customer requirements to a much deeper level and thinking about it almost like a consumer product as opposed to a commodity or a necessary evil.”
To get that customer interface to a deeper level you have to share what feedback you are getting from your customers.
“You have to try and bring this to life,” Clark says. “When you leave something in a spreadsheet or even if you leave something in a metric, it’s good to have everybody focused on the metric that ends up impacting your bonus, but to me the thing that brings it to life is to read the verbatims and read what customers have to say about you or what they experienced when they sat down with a sales person. It’s even better to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. People should be trying to get right to that customer interface as best they can to really not lose sight of how important that is.”
Turn feedback into growth
With the valuable information you can gain from your customers and your other satisfaction measurements, you have to use that to help your business grow.
“In terms of growth in the past, we’ve done a pretty good job of being in the right markets and having really good products to sell to our customers and we’ve got a fantastic front-end sales force and we’ve not gotten complacent around fixing the basics and making the customer experience a good one,” Clark says. “Ours is a business where you don’t necessarily have to be the first mover, but you definitely need to be where the action is and you need to be nimble enough to be able to capture some of those opportunities. We’ve managed to get to the right markets and get to the right customers with good products.”
In order to grow your business, you have to look for those opportunities to get into new markets or reach a new consumer.
“The area that we’ve really been focusing on quite recently is creating an offer or a value proposition to the small business customer,” she says. “In our space, the poor small business customer has really been ill-served, because most competitive retailers have kind of a plain vanilla offer that would go to a residential customer. The small business customer is really being neglected because some of the products and services you might offer to a larger customer would also not really resonate necessarily with a small business customer, so they’ve been lost in the middle. We have put quite a bit of effort into basically creating an offer and a customer experience that will meet the distinct needs of the small business customer.”
It’s these types of products or services that reach a demographic or customer that others haven’t paid any attention to that will help your business grow and get an edge on competition. You have to make sure you balance what you’ve always done with new initiatives.
“Balance is the right word,” Clark says. “You can’t get complacent just focusing on the basics. This is a really dynamic, competitive part of the energy world so you can’t just be inwardly focused and focused on the issues of today. We carve out time to think and explore ideas that might take off in the future rather than what’s relevant today. You have to make sure that you’re focused on the present and the future.”
As with products or services you develop today, what you are looking to in the future has to also have a customer focus.
“You’ve got to really be understanding of how your customer is thinking and really understand what’s important to them and try to proactively determine a product or a service that can really add value to that customer,” she says. “It has to be customer led because if it’s just something that we think is kind of nifty and doesn’t resonate with the customer, it’s not going to do any good.”
HOW TO REACH: Direct Energy Business, (412) 667-5100 or www.directenergybusiness.com
- Differentiate your business from your competition.
- Create ways for customers to give you feedback.
- Use feedback to help grow your business and create opportunity.
The Clark File
Direct Energy Business
Born: Ottawa, Canada
Education: Attended Queens University in Kingston and earned a bachelors degree in economics.
What was your very first job, and what did you learn from that experience?
My first job was as a bank teller. What that taught me was that I was not very good at repetitive tasks.
Who is somebody that you admire in business?
Howard Shultz from Starbucks. He is a guy who obviously had tremendous success in a business that’s gone off the rails and he had to really challenge what was important to the business and important to the company that he was building. He seems to be quite humble about his learnings and he’s also given back a fair amount to his communities. He’s been successful in a multifaceted kind of way.
What are you looking forward to in the energy industry?
One of the things about this space is it’s gotten sexy all of a sudden, which I think is fantastic. It’s got tentacles into climate change, innovation, technology, transportation, so I like the fact that it’s complex, dynamic, and a global business.
What do you miss about Canada that you don’t have in Pittsburgh?
I miss Tim Horton’s and peameal bacon sandwiches, but we do have pretty good hockey though, so that makes up for it.