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Although both are white labels of Octopus, M&S and Co-Op Energy manage to outperform their parent company on customer service rankings. Utility Week asked Octopus Energy’s Rebecca Dibb-Simkin why this is, and what approach the company has taken to integrating two household brands into a disruptor model.

Last week’s quarterly publication of Citizens Advice’s star ratings had three retailers in the top five all powered by the same company – Octopus Energy. Two of these were the historic brands of Marks & Spencer and the Co-operative, with their energy arms rated 2nd and 4th respectively. Octopus itself was ranked in 5th place overall.

Octopus, which serves more than 2 million customers, has not been shy about its growth ambitions and aims to have 100 million customers globally on its Kraken platform before the end of the decade. It currently serves 220,000 customers across all its white label brands, a decrease considering it bought 300,000 from Co-op, Flow and GB Energy in summer 2019.

Also supplying Affect Energy and London Power, Octopus took over the white label supply of M&S Energy from SSE in September 2018.

“From my perspective I am absolutely delighted to have brands with such heritage in my stable. I think they bring a lot to us. M&S in particular. We signed that deal when we were still fairly small and it was a very big deal for us,” says Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, global head of product and marketing at Octopus.

Following the publication of the latest star ratings, Dibb-Simkin tells Utility Week that customers of these two historic brands have additional benefits which allow them to differentiate from the main business.

Co-op Energy

For Co-op customers this differentiation includes the fact that while they are being serviced by Octopus, they are still members of the Midcounties Co-operative and are able to access associated benefits such as money off Co-op products through membership points.

Dibb-Simkin adds: “You get that brand as well and actually knowing that your money is going into a co-operative where profits are shared around the members, which is very important to people.”

There is also the joint venture between Co-op and Octopus, Community Energy, which is described as bringing together “like-minded locals to invest in community generation projects”.

“We seek PPAs with small community generators. That’s something we’re really keen on because Co-op means community, that’s what it’s about.

“It’s quite a deep relationship, it’s not just a white label and they pay us to look after their customers. There’s actually lots of things that we do together to try and drive the idea of community energy and community power.”

M&S Energy

Having traded since 1884, Marks & Spencer is another high street fixture and Octopus has been keen to maximise this brand recognition. To that end, sales teams continue to operate in-store to allow customers to ask for help with bills.

“You find that our teams almost become part of the store staff and will point people in the right direction for particular items and that kind of thing,” she says.

This layering in of additional elements, Dibb-Simkin adds, meant M&S could make its offering more bespoke.

Yet while offering a more personalised is something highly valued, Dibb-Simkin says customers of the historic brands, who are often of a slightly older demographic, are willing to adapt to new ways of doing things.

She explains that when the company took over the supply of Co-op’s customers it was requested they include an option of interactive voice response (IVR) as a method of submitting meter readings.

“We’ve been surprised in how well Co-op and M&S customers actually respond to things being digitally driven,” she adds.

“We have brought in a meter reading IVR for Co-op customers. It was requested a lot at the beginning –  they are able to phone up and put their meter readings in rather than email them. Although funnily enough we have done it and there is a much higher proportion of people who give us their meter readings in the way that all the Octopus customers give us their meter readings.

“Let’s not just assume because someone is slightly older they have to write you letters. People do adapt, which is quite nice.”

Friendly rivalry  

When Octopus took on the 300,000 customers of Co-op Energy in 2019 it also retained the Co-op brand and staff who became Octopus Energy employees. The M&S customer service team remains a separate body within Octopus and has its own customer service phone number.

Dibb-Simkin says there is a friendly rivalry between the M&S Energy customer service teams and those of Octopus Energy.

She adds: “M&S has their own ringfenced team within Octopus, there’s a particular number and they answer the phone as M&S Energy – it’s the Leicester-based team. Those team members are trained in exactly the same way as Octopus.

“We don’t move people in and out of the Octopus and M&S businesses but we have had a couple of team leaders come from Octopus go into M&S and back into the main business so they’re the same kinds of people.

“It’s quite funny actually because we get a lot of competitiveness internally in weekly metrics. The M&S team likes to be much better than the Octopus team.”