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Updates from Team Bulb

Members, team, mission – an update on how we're doing

An illustration of a member of Team Bulb at work

This is the second of my regular updates about how Bulb is doing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As ever, I’m going to start by talking about how we’re serving our members. Because nothing is more important right now than doing that well and giving you one less thing to worry about.

Given the circumstances, we’re delivering good service

Right now we’re keeping our phone line for emergencies only (though we hope to relax that soon) but we’re able to answer email and chat enquiries as normal. If you need to get hold of us, chat is the best way to do it. We’ll normally answer within 2 minutes.

We’ve also been working with our partners and the rest of the energy industry to tackle some of the more urgent and important problems faced by our members. Things that require engineers to enter peoples’ homes or ways to help top-up (also known as prepay) members who are self-isolating. We’re constantly reviewing and updating our guidance on these things. The whole sector, and government, is also deeply aware of an imminent problem; domestic energy bills are likely to rise because people are at home more, at the very time that many people are going to have more trouble paying. If you’re having that problem, we can offer help but we expect there to be wider industry announcements soon.

In fact, the way that the energy sector has rallied round to address this issue and its complexities has been one of the most inspiring and heartening things about the current crisis. We’ve had multiple calls with BEIS, with Ofgem, with Citizens Advice and with Energy UK, both bilaterally and in conference calls with the CEOs of other energy businesses.  And every conversation has been constructive and focused on the needs of energy consumers. I’ve been especially impressed by the way Government and regulators have reacted. They’ve been quick, clear and communicative. This post from Ofgem CEO Jonathan Brearly is a good example of their pragmatism and clarity.

Together, for instance, we’ve decided to pause the smart meter roll out and non-urgent energy efficient work as part of the Energy Companies Obligation.

This week we also welcomed 9,000 former GnERGY customers to Bulb. We had to supply Ofgem with a wealth of information to bid for these customers and the fact that we were selected from amongst our competitors at this difficult time is testament to our financial and operational health. They joined us as part of a regulated process called Supplier of Last Resort (SOLR) because GnERGY has ceased trading.

We’re delighted to welcome these 9,000 new members to the fold. GnERGY was a unique company and we’re sad to see it go. It had special ties to the gurkha community and we’re hoping to honour that connection as we take on these new members. We’ve built a special update page specifically for those members with Hindi and Nepali translations available for those who need them.

Our team continues to inspire

I’ve expressed my pride before on how well the Bulb team has managed to adapt to everything that’s going on right now. It’s been extraordinary to see. I’ve also had a chance to reflect on how we’ve managed to do this and I thought that might be useful to share for other businesses in other crises.

First, we’ve benefited enormously from our relentless urge to automate. Our first instinct with every problem is to try and solve it with software. That’s how we’re able to serve 1.7 million members with 700 employees. We build tools that enable our members to self-serve and tools that help our employees help our members. These tools aren’t shiny or consumer-facing and, in ordinary times, only we’d know they’re there. But in these times, when systems that rely on humans showing up to work are breaking down, our investment has enabled us to keep serving our members.

Second, I’m glad that we’ve always stuck to our guns on hiring smart, problem-solving generalists and empowering them to solve member problems. Our customer service teams (we call them Energy Specialists) don’t read scripts and don’t specialise in specific areas of service. We train everyone to be able to solve whatever member problem comes up. And we give them the tech they need to make that happen. (Including, crucially, laptops and cloud-based service tools.) They have risen to the current challenges with remarkable grace and aplomb. Conventional wisdom would tell us that we’re overpaying for these people, that we should empower them less and that it’s costing us too much to have the vast majority of them based in our London headquarters. Conventional wisdom is wrong on this one, and even more wrong at the moment.

Third, we’re used to exponential change. A business that grows 10% in a week is comfortable with sudden changes in direction and is happy to turn on a dime. We’re especially used to making decisions before it’s obvious what the right answer is. And to acting quickly on those decisions. We probably didn’t have more detailed contingency plans than other businesses for a pandemic outbreak, but we are good at taking swift and decisive action. Years of hypergrowth teach you how to be good in a crisis.

One technique we’ve found useful in these circumstances is to create some ‘agreed reality’ around the future. For instance, when we asked everyone to start working from home we said we were planning to do it for two weeks. We didn’t know if that was true but it gave everyone a shared timeline for planning. We’ve revised that now, of course, but doing so clearly and unequivocally means the business can plan more coherently. We’ve similarly asked all our teams to make plans to be ‘back to normal’ by mid-May. Again, that might be too optimistic (and if it is we’ll change it) but it gives people a date to plan to and stops our current situation from being the default reality.

Finally, we’ve managed to recruit people who are deeply committed to solving problems for our members and each other. And who are willing to self-organise to do it. They’ve been brave, making tough decisions when they’ve needed to, they’ve kept working and kept acting in conditions of great uncertainty and they’ve built the tools they need to deliver. Our internal wiki is constantly updating with new ways to trouble-shoot member problems and our teams are rapidly changing shape and focus to address our new realities.

I’ve especially loved seeing the little ways our people have found to support each other; like the tips circulating on the #isolatedbulberinos Slack channel (including useful mental health resources and an excellent blueberry and almond muffin recipe for the weekend) and the WFH playlist curated by the #music channel. I’ll confess that I’ve always been slightly skeptical of the value of Slack inside Bulb but the team has never let me ditch it. They were right. (It’s still too expensive though :) )

We’re staying focused on our mission

And through all of this we’ve managed to keep our eyes on the mission.

With the Smart meter roll-out paused our Smart product teams are spending extra time on the Smart products we hope to roll out when the world is back to normal. We think these will help all our members save money and reduce their CO2 impact. We’re glad of the opportunity to get it to you even sooner.

And we were about to launch our Carbon Calculator when coronavirus hit. Right now, we think it might be a bad time to flood our communications channels with exciting new news about new products. But as we keep saying, the climate crisis isn’t going away, offsetting is still important and, as soon as we can, we’re going to tell you all about it.

Thank you for your patience and understanding

I have to end with a word of thanks. Although our systems have held up well, no service business is perfect and things sometimes do go wrong. We have a slack channel called #thankyoubulb where we share positive member feedback with the team. Recently that channel has been filled with examples of warm and positive exchanges between members and Energy Specialists, even when the member has experienced a problem. That has been so cheering to see. Thank you.

Take care of yourselves and each other.