From The Top

Eco tycoon Dale Vince: It’s a false economy to rubbish customer service

Rebecca Smith | 7 October 2015 | 9 years ago

Despite founding an energy empire,  Vince doesn't consider himself an entrepreneur
Despite founding an energy empire, Vince doesn’t consider himself an entrepreneur
The founder of green energy supplier Ecotricity, spoke to Business Advice about extending his eco-approach to football, how to consistently deliver good customer service and why he’s impressed with Jeremy Corbyn.

Dale Vince has been concerned with sustainability since he was young in the 90s he lived in an military vehicle on a hill, using a small windmill to power the lights. He had spent ten years or so looking for an alternative way to live as a New Age traveller. Vince wanted to make a more wide-rangingimpact to bring change to the electricity industry, and so the development of Ecotricity began, hoping to providegreen electricity to people as a choice.

While he prefers to view his business as a social enterprise, saying I wouldn’t call myself an entrepreneur, the success of Ecotricity and Vince’s net worth now standing at around 107m, reflects he’s very much a canny businessman.

For Vince, the most challenging part of his role has been actually being in the energy industry. It has reinvented itself a couple of times in the 20 years I’ve worked within it. There have been constant changes from the regulator, political interference and the development of technology like smart meters, so it has been a challenging environment to run a business in, he explained.

Wind power 2

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Vince is fairly sanguine about how to deal with an industry often being unsettled in some shape or form. You just have to deal with developments as they come and make sure you’re in touch with them. He notedthe incoming smart meter rollout to become standard across the country by 2020. We’re starting ours in the next couple of months, so it’s just about being on top of stuff like that.

A notable attribute of Ecotricity has been its unwavering performance when it comes to customer service often a tricky area to navigate for businesses of any size. It made the cut in?Which?’s annual survey, though Vince’sfirst priority is checking complaint data, which energy companies have to publish for Ofgem. We’ve been ahead on that by a very long way for a while. It’s the ultimate customer satisfaction rating, he said.

With that in mind, how does he make sure consistently good service is a given? From the beginning we told staff to treat customers how you’d like to be treated have peer to peer conversations in how you talk to them, he explained.

we tend to have all calls picked up within 20 seconds and nine out of ten enquiries get dealt with by the first person a customer speaks to, as our staff are cross-trained, Vince added. It’s about establishing that culture it starts at the top. If you see it as a cost or a problem you’re setting yourself up to fail. You need to see customer service as a chance to interact with customers, help them and your business it’s a false economy to rubbish customer service.

Long-term approaches can be important for many aspects of running a business Vince says for small firms trying to be more conscious about sustainability, if you can think ahead you’ll reap the benefits. A more efficient boiler for example, might cost more to begin with, but will have a lower operating cost, so if you can afford to have longer-term thinking here, then this sort of approach is a good one to take, he advised.

While Ecotricity has made an impact in broadening thechoices available to consumers when it comes to energy, Vince still has more he’d like to achieve. I want to get better at what we do as an energy company and bring about more change, make more of an impact with the government. Everything we do is about moving towards a greener Britain and making it easier for people to make the switch too.

His other venture in this respect, involved extending his eco-approach to the world of football. In 2010 he became a major shareholder of Forest Green Rovers and then the club’s chairman. He soon racked up the headlines after banning red meat from the club in 2011 both for players and fans attending matches. That was probably the most controversial thing we did, but the whole message was don’t come and eat the same stuff as you always do. It’s one meal a fortnight, try something different, he said. Soon, even the most ardent pie fan was won over by the vegetarian options and the club has rolled out a number of green initiatives since.

An earlier version of the Forest Green Rovers kit,  after making the switch to green
An earlier incarnation of the Forest Green Rovers kit, after making the switch to green in 2012
it’s all about taking people on a journey. A lot of supporters saw the news coverage it generated which also drew attention to the club, he added.

The kit has, unsurprisingly, changed from black and white stripes to a very bright green, with the latest?to be kept for two years, rather than asking fans to buy a new shirt every year another nod to making sustainable changes where possible.

There wasa six-month period where the entire squad drove electric cars, while the stadium also offers a charge point in an effort to encourage fans to use them too. Vince had the club install 180 solar panels to the roof of the stand, generating ten per cent of the electricity needed to run the stadium, while another intriguing introduction was the first robot lawn mower to be used by a British football club on its playing surface.

These are all examplesof Vince innovating to broaden his green credentials outside of Ecotricityand spread out the eco-approach. This also extends to politics before the general election, Ecotricity made a 250, 000 donation to the Labour party, with Vince saying it was a myth that Labour was anti-business.

He felt the coalition government undermined not just the renewable energy industry in Britain but the whole green economy, and by default, efforts to combat climate change. When asked about smaller firms in particular, Vince says there has been a tendency for them to be overlooked? when it comes to the government.

they get the odd nod at election time, when they get acknowledged for the significant contribution they make to the economy, he said. Bigger corporations get a lot of tax breaks and hold influence as we all know.

He mentioned a recent conversation with new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, about how many small business owners don’t have access to many benefits like maternity pay, and for small businesses the average rate of pay is very low too.

Corbyn outlined the plans to extend maternity and paternity pay to the self-employed during the Labour party conference, saying the Conservatives were “clobbering” the entrepreneurs “they claim to represent” with the tax credit cuts.

they need further inclusion with in-work benefits a lot of business owners are one-man-bands, so I thought that was an interesting piece of new thinking, Vince explained.

New thinking, is after all, what much of Vince’s business ethos is centred around, and having said he’s not yet finished on his quest to get Britain greener, it’s likely there’s still more to come when it comes to Vince’s ongoing sustainability innovation.

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