A few weeks ago, I had the honour and pleasure of judging the 2020 UK Customer Experience Awards. This was my third year as a judge at this event and I was invited to chair the judging panel for the category ‘Customers at the heart of everything – Utilities and Housing Provider’.

The first thing that struck me when I marked the written submissions was how much the general standard had improved on previous years. When I rate entries, I am looking for evidence of a clear context to the strategy; detailed objectives; illustrative examples; and tangible results, and these elements were largely comprehensively covered. 

On the day it was great to delve into the case studies in more detail and follow up on some of the areas where the written entry had lacked sufficient detail. Despite the event taking place over Zoom, each presenter managed to convey their enthusiasm and pride in what they had achieved.

The Gold winner in the category was Octopus Energy. This is their third year as a CX Award Winner, and they also won Gold in two other categories this year. If you are familiar with Octopus, this will come as no surprise. They are a relatively new kid on the block and since launching in 2016 have grown the business to serve 1.5m consumers. They have been named Which? Recommended Energy Provider for three years in a row.

Their customer-centric ethos is very much led from the top by CEO Greg Jackson, who regularly reads through customer comments; and their organisational structure is designed around their customers, with dedicated teams of ‘energy specialists’ who are assigned to groups of customers. Colleagues are empowered by having access to all customer details at all stages of the journey (through a bespoke system), which enables them to achieve an impressive 95 percent first contact resolution, as well as build trusted relationships with the customer group they are assigned to. The customer intimacy they establish through this approach is also a rich source of customer insight that feeds into new developments and innovation – a great example of an organisation that is truly in ‘listening mode’ with its customers.

It is clear that customer centricity is in the DNA of Octopus Energy and they most definitely deserve their many accolades; kudos also to their CEO who clearly leads by example and has embedded this customer ethos from the very start.

Competing in the same category was a business that has been around for decades and is now undertaking a significant cultural transformation, tapping into both customer and employee insight to identify how to empower employees to deliver excellent service. The description of the internal engagement efforts they were making to shift mindset away from ‘people’ to ‘process’ gave an indication of just how fundamental a transformation this was for the company.

Scoring these two different initiatives I was reminded of the Dave Allen joke about a tourist in Ireland who asks for directions to Dublin, only to be told “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”.

I wonder if it is really fair to judge these organisations side by side. Whilst Octopus deserve their accolades, they haven’t had to transform a set of systems and processes that were built when the organisation had a different focus. They haven’t had to overcome legacy systems and mindset and drive a cultural transformation at the same time as addressing the data, system, and process challenges.

The Awards should rightly celebrate those who are setting the standards in customer experience, but I wonder if we should also acknowledge the starting point and the distance travelled – not all organisations are facing equal challenges in that respect.

So maybe it’s time to think about organising the CX Awards categories less around sectors, and more around the size of the challenge undertaken. The new entrants will find themselves competing together to be customer experience standard bearers for all sectors; and those organisations that are battling to transform internal culture along with addressing legacy systems and data will find themselves on a more even playing field, being celebrated for the progress they have made.

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