It’s a serene and sunny fall day in Houston, and Bruce Stewart and the Direct Energy Home team are thinking about your electricity bill and home service needs.
“It’s that time of year when the temperature is changing, not just here in Texas, but around the country,” says Stewart, president of the Houston-based Direct Energy. “Our customers are busy thinking about the safety of their families and the upcoming holidays…and candidly, they are counting on us to help them achieve peace of mind with their energy and home service needs. So that’s what we do—we focus on helping customers select a tailored and affordable energy plan, that allows them to keep their homes comfortable, while also helping them to use energy more efficiently and sustainably.”
Many customers are not on the right energy plan or provided timely information to help them manage their energy use, which unfortunately results in customers receiving bill shock. You’ve probably experienced “bill shock” at some point in your life—it’s that wave of surprise and worry you may get when you open a bill, especially your electricity bill in the summer or winter months. If you hate that feeling, you’re not alone; Stewart knows the feeling, and he doesn’t like the idea of you being surprised, worried, or wondering, “How did this happen?” That’s why Stewart and Direct Energy decided to ensure that customers are on the right energy plans and have relevant, simple, and timely information available to help save them from bill shock.
“We always focus on helping the customer solve the problem before it happens,” he says. To do so, Direct Energy implemented a program in which customers who aren’t on the right energy plan are contacted with a customized plan that’s designed to save them money, regardless of when they are eligible to renew or switch. Not only is this a great service, it’s also simply the right thing to do.
Additionally, Stewart led the implementation of a program that provides helpful, personalized data to simplify the way customers realize energy savings. “We’ve added the ability for you to see your consumption as it’s going up or down during the month, and we can send you alerts so you see how it’s trending and how you can better control your energy bill. These initiatives aren’t necessary or required, and many competitors don’t offer these services; but we believe in them and our customers appreciate the support and transparency.”
And it’s paid off. Direct Energy’s dedication to customers has made them one of the most trusted companies in the electricity market. The company is the third-largest seller of electricity in Texas, and one of the largest providers to customers throughout the U.S. and in Canada. Direct Energy has been powering homes and businesses since 1986. Recently, they earned the Houston Chronicle’s coveted “Best of the Best” award, an accolade voted on by Texans. But if you think Stewart and co. are going to rest on their laurels, think again. “There’s still a lot more innovation demanded by our customers, and we’re not done yet,” says Stewart.
“That award is a validator, for sure,” Stewart admits. “We’re not looking at it as a crowning achievement, though. We’re already looking forward to the next win, and for us, that means finding out how our customers win.”
For many years, Direct Energy’s leadership and employees have been what Stewart calls “customer-obsessed.” In other words, it’s not enough to provide electricity, natural gas, home protection plans, and a wide range of other products; the company wants to build trust and deepen customer relationships. This is a savvy business move, of course, but it also comes from the heart. Stewart can talk for hours about leveraging data to drive customer retention, yet at the end of the day, the point of all of those numbers is creating happy customers. “We’re less worried about how much time we spend on the line with the customer,” he says. “Our priority is ending the call with the customer feeling happy and feeling like they’ve been heard.”
Direct Energy’s devotion to customers extends far beyond those phone calls. The company has long focused on enhancing their level of digital service, making continuous tweaks and upgrades to their website, offering chat, text, and “one-click services” to improve ease of use. They’re also focused on upping the number of products their customers use. If Direct Energy is your electricity provider, then the company wants to be your home protection and HVAC services provider too.
Stewart says that’s one of the biggest ways Direct Energy has changed. The company was already a large provider when the new president got on board in January 2019, but since then the leadership team has firmly pivoted and become even more reliant on data, analytics, and insights to improve operations and customer service, as well as drive retention initiatives.
“We had a lot of conversations that started with, ‘What can we do better to make sure our customers don’t ever want to leave?’” Stewart says of his early tenure. “So, we knew we wanted to focus on retention, but focusing on retention is just another way to say you’re focusing on the customer.”
Picture this: You’re looking for an electricity provider for you and your family, and you’re weighing several options. You want to get a good deal, but what else is important to you?
Through customer surveys, research, and conversations, Direct Energy realized their customers care most about being understood and having peace of mind. They want to know they chose the right product for their home or business, and when they have questions, they want to know where to go or who to call. More importantly, they want that digital interaction or phone call to be positive, easy, and successful.
“If you’re on the phone or in a chat with someone from our team, our number one priority is always going to be getting it right the first time,” Stewart says. The president knows that this level of service takes buy-in, care, and effort from employees. Luckily, Direct Energy staffers are passionate about what they do.
“We’re so fortunate because our employees deeply care about the customer,” he says. “They’re competitive with other members of the industry, because they truly want to be the best.”
When Stewart joined the company’s ranks, he said he saw some areas of the company where collaboration could be improved between coworkers. But he never encountered employees who weren’t willing to cooperate with their colleagues and improve their service for customers.
“This is a place where people have the courage to ask tough questions of one another,” the president says. “It’s a place where people can say, ‘This isn’t working as well as we’d like,’ and then we’ll solve it together. It’s a real ‘we over me’ mentality.”
And soon, the “we” is going to get a whole lot bigger. In July, the company announced that they had been acquired by NRG Energy. It’s not their first acquisition; in 2000, Direct Energy was bought by the British company Centrica PLC. For that reason and many others, Stewart is confident the future of Direct Energy will be incredibly bright (pun intended).
“Our next hurdle is helping people navigate the renewable and sustainable energy journey, and continue to offer valuable home services,” he says. “It’s something we know is on our customers’ minds.”
And, of course, the company will continue to look for ways to improve their already stellar customer service. As he talks over video on that warm Houston day, Stewart waxes poetic about data, analytics, and how the tracking thereof is central to Direct Energy’s mission. “But,” he stops himself mid-sentence, “it’s ultimately about the customer. In our eyes, that’s who is really the best of the best.”
Words by Tyler Hicks.