7 ways to build employee engagement and capability in a CX transformation

Sumo Energy's customer service chief shares the journey the energy retailer has been on to go from insolvency to growth and how employee engagement has driven CX dividends

Too many people are still getting their customer experience technology transformations wrong because they fail to invest in the people capability around it.

That’s the view of Sumo Energy general manager of customer experience and growth, Peter Perla, who caught up with CMO at the recent Genesys G-Summit event in Sydney to talk about how the tier-two energy retailer has worked to avoid insolvency, built out its experience and service processes, and is now boasting growth rates that are exceeding many of its competitors.

Founded in 2015, Sumo Energy experienced significant growth in its first few years of operation. But a lack of investment into operations and process had left the business in a situation where it was facing insolvency six months into Perla’s four-year tenure. With the shareholders opting to double down rather than exit, a new MD was installed and Perla was elevated to the executive team to play a strategic role in getting the organisation first match fit, then geared for growth.  

For the last three years, Perla has been spearheading a transformation of Sumo Energy’s customer service and contact centre capabilities, replacing disparate technology systems with Cloud CX and rebuilding processes from the ground up.

“The challenge we had was a lot of disparate systems and we had outsourced a lot. It was hard to get a view of where the customer was. I needed to unpeel everything in the setup and start from base camp,” he said.  

The first big decision was deploying the PureCloud (now Genesys Cloud CX) platform as a foundational, integrated capability, then bring everything back to basics. Early use cases focused on automating transactions and campaigns where possible, such as credit management. Sumo Energy is now back to managing growth, increasing revenue by 35 per cent last year.

“About a year ago was when I felt we were out of crisis mode and we had earned the right to grow again and invest further into the technology,” Perla said. “Where a lot of people get this wrong is they think I’ll invest in the technology and get a return on it. It’s not that simple – you have to invest into your capabilities to deliver on the technology.”

Here, Perla shares the employee engagement steps he’s taken to ensure Sumo Energy’s capabilities can realise the potential of its technology, improve customer experiences and maximise growth.

Cross-skilling the team

One early step was to cross-skill the whole contact centre. “When you’re bleeding cash, you have to rationalise your workforce. I was bringing a lot of stuff back from offshore to onshore. The only way was to cross-skill our agents,” Perla said.

“Having the platform allowed me to do skills-based routing using what’s inherent in the application.”

Helping with understanding performance is another string to this bow. Sumo Energy is now embarking on the speech analytics journey with the aim of using this practically from an operational point of view. Already, the team measures sentiment as a lead indicator on whether or not work needs to be done with an agent, or if a customer event is about to go awry. Then it’s all about the next value-added activity.

For Sumo Energy, cross-selling its broadband offering and validating email addresses are big priorities. Using the technology, Perla can see if an agent took 40 calls and identify which percentage pitched the broadband product.

“Before, we’d never sold it and we were not getting cut through. You can’t listen to every call. It was amazing – once you let the team know you can measure this, it helps spur momentum,” Perla said. “Then you invest in the coaching stuff. And we have seen an uplift in our telco sales results as a consequence.”

Being transparent about the company reality

Transparency around Sumo Energy’s financial position was another must for Perla and the executive team.

“When you’re about to career off a cliff and the organisation isn’t going to be there, you have a burning platform. But there is an air of cynicism and people are disengaged,” he explained. “That was the biggest issue – people didn’t know if they would have a job or not. Then you get to cost rationalisation and when redundancies come through. What you’re left with is what you have to work with.

“One of the things we did was to be very clear and transparent around where the organisation was and what the plan was to go forward.”

Have shared KPIs

Sumo Energy introduced shared KPIs so everyone had the same bonus structure and goal, from CFO to frontline agent and head of product. These related to financial figures such as customer growth and retention plus cost to serve.

“Once you have that, reinforce it and everyone realises we’re all aligned here, then you start to get the cut through,” Perla said.

Take time out to invest in people

Another thing Perla did, prompted by the need to cross-skill service agents to sell, was spend a lot of time investing into people. To do this, he shortened operating hours by 30 minutes so he could train staff every single day.

“It is an awesome way to build engagement. Every morning, everyone is in and whether it’s sales or compliance, or going through what’s happening on the calls, we’re going through it together,” Perla said. “As you build that collaboration and people are fixated on results, that’s where you get real cut through. For example, every Tuesday we have ‘compliance Tuesday’ to go through compliance stuff. We make sure to keep it fresh.”

This worked particularly well through Covid lockdowns, where everyone was working from home.

“We had a half an hour where everyone was in talking about what we were trying to solve or issue we were trying to tackle,” Perla said. “Once a month, we bring everyone through the financials so they really understand where the business is at. That information sharing is really how we have built engagement.”

Solve the issues agents see

Having been in contact centres for 20 years, Perla is well aware not addressing the obvious issues agents see is disempowering and results in plummeting engagement levels.

“Agents know what needs to be fixed. If they don’t see it getting fixed, the tune out and either become despondent or just accept it,” he said. “One of the things we do is active service recovery. As soon as we identify an issue, it goes into a process where we address it, prioritise it and move on. When you’re small and nimble it’s easy to do that. We’re an organisation of 60+ people so we have that visibility and ability to do that.”  

Build and action your feedback loop

To help Sumo Energy keep on track with customer retention, Perla will shortly implement an after-call survey. To do this, an SMS will be generated post-call for customers to leave feedback and give an NPS score. That verbatim feedback will come back in real-time. Again, this level of insight and constant feedback loop will drive employee engagement, he agreed.

“That will give us a really great gauge on what’s happening and whether or not the experience is what it should be. We’re very closely to having that implemented,” Perla said. “The goal is to really understand what customers think and their feedback. Every customer that gives us negative feedback will be someone we go back to and we’ll resolve the issue. They’re quite surprised we take the time to do something with the feedback.”

Further automation of transactions, particularly around onboarding, is another priority. “We have had significant sales growth and onboarding is your real moment of truth and there is the case of us following things up. That might be through email, phone calls, letters sent out inviting the customer to call you back,” Perla said.

“We’re looking at how we can do automated messaging, identify the customer, send the SMS, the customer comes back and it’s all seamless.

Know your customer

“When we started looking at this stuff, we realised no one really wants to ring their energy retailer. Once you realise that, what you need to do is stop the service failures. But when they do ring, they come through and have an efficient, memorable experience and hopefully don’t have to speak to us again.

“We have done a lot of work on our customer contact rate, and we’re down to 7 per cent of the base contacting us per month.”

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