• Carl Chargington

Under the Hood Ep. 1: UX, rapid forecourts & call centre waiting times with Thomas Hutton

Hello and welcome to Bonnet’s first episode of “Under the Hood”. A series of interviews where we talk to cool people from the EV industry to get their take on EV-related matters and cool stuff in general. Our pilot guest is our good friend, Thomas Hutton from Ubitricity, who is responsible for all things Customer Experience there. Since customer experience is the core value at Bonnet, there was no better person that we could have chosen to speak to on our first episode.

The tasting menu this evening consists of eight questions that start with our staple “most controversial/unpopular opinion about EVs” question. Finished with a signature item that we call ‘the blitz’ - fast/rapid questions (pun intended) for our guests to answer quickly or elaborate on a little longer. Enjoy!

A signature ubitricity smart charging cable, plugged into a lamp post on the street.

And so, we start off with a question where we basically just ask, what is the most controversial idea that you hold about the EV industry and that you think is a really unpopular opinion?

I don't know about unpopular, but there's a few things that are massive unknowns in the industry. I think it's things like lots of research into much larger batteries and hybrids. I suppose it’s not an unpopular opinion, but hybrids are in my head the worst of both worlds in terms of the transition between EVs and ICE vehicles. It seems like it makes sense from the customer point of view. But actually, you're having the worst of both worlds where you're always lugging around an engine that you're not using half the time. You have got to think that most of the inefficiencies that come around through cars, come around through excess weight.

I don't think that's a particularly unpopular opinion, but it's the same kind of argument that you're looking at with building the biggest batteries in the world. You don't buy petrol vehicles because they have bigger fuel tanks. You rely on the infrastructure that's already there. There's lots of hype being made. I think particularly to non-EV owners. People who are currently interested in EVs, but have not actually got one themselves. “Oh yeah, I'll be interested when they make a battery that does so many miles” feeds into the opinion that using an EV is the same as using a petrol car, but with just a different form of combustion. Whereas, in reality, you're talking about behaviour changes that come along with that and we shouldn't shy away from those behaviour changes. It's very nice for people to translate directly from one means of transport to the other whilst keeping all their behaviours the same, but actually, this is a chance for us to really revolutionise how we think about transport, how we think about how energy fits into that and make all of that system more efficient. It’s not massively controversial, but it's a hesitation around all of the hype that's being made out of bigger batteries, longer ranges, etc. I’m definitely all up for more robust batteries. Batteries that last for longer. But do not just hold more charge in one area. That seems to be a bit of a crutch for a charging infrastructure that isn't really there yet.

I definitely agree with you on that one. Plug-ins are a weird one. So, now more onto a more customer experience kind of focus. We touched the industry that you work in and now I'd like to talk more about the position that you work in, which is Customer Experience Manager at Ubitricity. If you had to summarise your entire customer-experience career into one rule, what would it be?

The one rule to fit all? I think actually this is a really good one that lots of people fall into: when you're sitting there behind the desk trying to create journeys for customers or think about how customers would react, you have to remember that you are not a customer yourself. The trap a lot of UX people make when they’re building this is that they look at a proposition, or they look at pricing, or they look at a journey and they go “Would I use that?” and the answer may be yes, no, whatever. What you have to understand is that you've got a whole spectrum of people that will be using that experience that aren't you and have very different viewpoints. You can't judge the whole thing by what you think about it. It's that kind of acknowledgement that people fall into all the time. The customer is a separate entity to you, or the company, or anyone inside it, who will automatically have better knowledge about the subject. Better insight as to why things are like they are. For instance, if you're thinking about the journey a customer goes through in terms of an IVR journey or a phone support journey, what might be really obvious to you, because you've helped create that journey, is not obvious to customers. So you have to always externally test these things and, not doing that, means you can fall into some really big pitfalls.

I think that actually answers the next question, which was: what is a “no-go” for you on a customer experience basis? And with that in mind, what is the worst customer experience that you have ever had or experienced? And this can be non-EV related. This can be anything from waiting times on the phone or rude staff at a restaurant.

It's interesting. We always think that the go-to is something like rude staff at restaurants and things like that. But I can almost see that's part of the user experience of a restaurant. You get a personal experience and sometimes that is terrible. What I find really inexcusable is when you get things like…I had this recently, which had to do with online orders. You order whatever you want from whatever company. I think the one I did was a load of sportswear. Get it all delivered to you and, in the world of fast fashion in particular, returns are a vital component of that. So, in an effort to cut down on waste, what they'd said was “We won't provide you with anything inside the parcel. There won't be any slip that says ‘here's what you've ordered, here's how much you paid.’ We won't give you any of that”. They completely didn't offer a return label. In the world of fast fashion where you want to return/change clothes, not having a return label is quite a big deal. And then just saying “you can print one at home”. I haven't got a printer at home. I don't know anybody at all who has a printer just waiting at home. All of a sudden you have this thing of “how the hell do I print something?”. Especially now that we're not in the office.

Another bugbear is when people do that and say it's under the guise of reducing environmental waste. I absolutely understand we've got to try and reduce the amount of waste that goes out with these things. Packaging is a huge part of it. But also, it's just a bit like: if it doesn't fundamentally fulfil what I need to do, we need to think of another way to do it. There are ways of not providing additional waste, but still allowing you to return the parcel. It's just somebody has not quite thought that through.

I think when I was reading some studies or surveys about “what's the worst customer-experience-related thing that you've experienced?”, the number one answer had to do with waiting times. It seems that people just hate to wait for anything, especially in our fast-paced world. I know you worked in the telecom sector for a while. Why is it that there is always a one-hour waiting time when I'm trying to phone up Three, EE, O2, etc.?

Yeah, it comes down to a calculation. If you take any large company, peel back the curtain in those situations, maintaining call centres and the staff that go into them are a big cost drain on the business. They like to invest in them in terms of training for individual staff rather than maximising the pure amount available. If you actually do the research on this and look at the people who complain about having a long wait time, those people will usually only complain if what they're phoning up for isn't resolved. If you wait for a long time and then actually that person you get through to is nice and can solve your problem, that wait time very quickly gets forgotten. So what they do is pour all of their money into trying to get you the best experience when you do get through, rather than maximising the amount of staff that you've got and having a lot of people who haven't waited, but get through and they can't get their problem solved. It is something that is a bugbear, but I think the alternative is a lot worse.

So it's basically optimisation with quality over quantity.

Yeah. Another really interesting thing about wait times as well. There's a podcast I listen to, I think it's part of the 99PI network. They do a deep dive into wait times and especially how it works for online quote-finding companies like my Moneysupermarket and things like that. And the difficulty being: you're so used to things happening instantly when you go online, that if it doesn't happen instantly, you get really annoyed at it. When you go onto these Moneysupermarket, etc., it actually does take a little bit of time to get all these quotes from different places, link it to the various APIs and get the information you need. What they used to have was just your standard ticket that goes around and says “Please wait. We're amassing your quotes”. What they've changed that to is something that they're calling hyper transparent design, where they give you a rundown of what is actually happening in the background. So it goes “We’re contacting other companies. We’re amassing your quotes. We're checking your excess. We're looking at that” and that helps people understand why they're waiting. So as long as you understand why you're waiting, not just that you're waiting, people are far happier about it. Anyway, that's off topic. Just very interesting.

So, what are the main differences when it comes to actual customer segmentation, customer experience, etc., between when you worked in the telecom sector and now in the…I guess it's an automotive sector? I’m not quite sure how you would label it.

Yeah, it I think it's still to be defined. I think the interesting thing about customer experience as a whole is segmentations are interesting, but not always something to base customer experiences around. At the end of the day, you can identify eight different segments that are using your product and your customer journey has to apply equally to all of those areas. They’re extra views to take into account, but it's not like you say “oh, we're only interested in these three segments. I'm going to build a customer journey for just these three types of customer”, because at the end of the day, you're going to have some from all of those different segments. I find segmentations really interesting for marketing. Not always the most useful for customer experience, but always useful to give you that different idea of looking at the customer journey from different points of view.

In terms of the differences, I think it's still to be defined in the EV charging industry. I mean, at the moment, in terms of the innovation curve, we're right at the beginning still. We’ve had early adopters. We're still on ‘early movers’ kind of area. We haven't got EVs out to the mass market yet. So, all of the customers we encounter now are going to be a little bit different to the ones we encounter in a year's time or two years’ time. It's really still all shift around. You can't really rely on a segmentation with such a changing market at the moment because by the time you finish it, it's going to be out of date.

It's such a nascent market and it's still picking up steam. Why do you think, besides the vertical integration, that Tesla has it figured out and others don’t? Other people have not managed to do the same so far. Be it the OEMs that are trying to produce EVs at a rapid pace because they're trying to adjust to the changing landscape or be it charge point providers, mobility services, etc. Everyone's trying to do something that's very smooth and it's not quite working at this point. It will, I'm sure. But what do you think it's lacking?

To be honest it's difficult to say it's lacking anything.

I think we've got lots of people trying different things at the moment, and it’s only time that will tell exactly where all of this is going. It's not like we've got a range of different options where one is very clearly winning. I'm talking about EV charging now. How that kind of market is working. It's almost like we've got a number of people working on a number of different things. Customers will make the decision at some point. The customers are still getting educated about this as well. So, there's a load of barriers in there for customers as well about not knowing what the best way to go around charging your EV is. There's an education piece about how best to use chargers. Like a petrol forecourt model, from my point of view, doesn't look particularly sustainable going forward and is a huge missed opportunity to take advantage of this opportunity to change behaviour around how we use energy for transport. I think we've got a number of different approaches in terms of EV charging. There will be room in the market for Ubitricity's solution. There are lots people who rely on home charging. There'll be destination chargers for when you're travelling. There'll be rapid charges for range extending. It's figuring out how all of that landscape fits into one another and, to be honest, it's going to be dedicated by customers who don't yet know the scale of the problems that they're trying to solve for themselves.

The forecourts are also something that people have a divided opinion about. There are not many people on the fence. People seem to be either for them or against them. You said the customers haven't figured it out for themselves yet and it's still developing. How do you assess successful customer relations/customer experience at Ubitricity. What is the feedback loop that you implement to talk to customers or to gauge whether or not they're liking the service?

It's just a case of talking to them. I suppose whenever you're thinking about feedback from customers, there's almost a hierarchy of how they indicate to you that they like you or don't like you. Number one is how much they use you. Before you've even got to the stage of talking to customers or getting their opinions. We have seen the usage of our charge points increase over the last couple of years so we're quite happy that we're providing a service that people are very keen with getting behind.

After that, it comes to talking to our customers. In that space, we've got two camps of what we call customers because we've also got those that we sell the charge points to. Councils, local authorities, that group of customers. You've also got the end user customers. In terms of councils and Ubitricity's solution, we get a lot of face-to-face feedback from tenders, from meetings, etc. They like our solution for a few reasons. It's a low cost, low hassle installation.

We can install a charge point into a lamp post in under an hour. You can potentially do a whole street in a couple of days or a day in some cases. The fact that you don't have to immediately upgrade all the electricity systems to surround these charges. We're simply tapping into a supply that's already there. It's fantastic for councils. The idea that we're providing an amenity that helps level the playing field for current EV drivers as well. We're not just saying that we care about you if you have an EV and you've got a driveway. If you don't have a driveway as well, we're doing things to help support your transition to EVs and to support clean air goals throughout their authority areas.

The other side of it being the end users directly. We're currently ramping up the level to which we talk to customers. The research we've managed to do so far comes back as Ubitricity's solutions is very positive. They like the fact that we have a direct payment system where you don't need to use our smart cables. You just use your own cables. You can do that completely anonymously and still have a very competitive rate to charge your car at. The idea around a couple of those elements is really positive. The smart cable gets a lot of very positive feedback and that's mainly because it has the top level of customer experience that we currently offer. You set it up the first time and then you literally just plug it in and it just goes. It's as close to a replication of home charging that we've got. We’ve got some people that love that. We’ve got some people that love the anonymity and the ease of use of direct factors as well.

I think the smart cable is actually really cool because it's as close as you can get today to the plug and charge protocol where you just plug in your car and go. Granted, it only works with your chargers and with your smart cable. But if that's all you use then you're set. We see a lot of push from the government and companies saying that because customers will want something so similar to the refuelling of a petrol car, we should be focusing a lot on rapid charging. In the long term, what are people going to think about the use of rapid chargers? Because they might not be as good as for the environment as we want them to be.

In terms of what a Ubitricity focuses on, it goes against a few of those principles that we look at. The idea not only being that we're providing ubiquitous energy, energy for everybody in terms of the end use customer, but we're also providing a means by which the whole electricity system can run at a lower carbon level. Rapid charges fly in the face of that a little bit. So rather than trying to force charging times to go to when there is lots of excess electricity available, rapid charges simply place load on the network at peak times anyway.

I think in terms of the whole, how customers are currently thinking about all of this, the hardest thing to do in business is to change your customers’ behaviour. It's the most difficult thing to do. But that doesn't mean you should shy away from it. That doesn't mean you should just cater to let people do what they do and not get used to new systems. We have an opportunity with this new EV evolution to change the way in which customers think about how they drive and how they supply that transport with electricity. To simply say “let's keep it the same as a forecourt model” doesn't help us reach carbon neutral emissions. If we were to take it from a customer point of view, it feels very nice to say “oh, actually, if I can get charged in 40 minutes and that gives me 100 percent battery, why wouldn't I go there?” But that's then missing the point. You can actually push the benefits. Instead of thinking about this like a petrol car, think of it like your phone charger. You use your phone during the day, you go home at night. You don't drive to a specific point, sit there and wait for your phone to charge up and then go away. You put it on charge where it already is, by your bedside at night. You just leave it there while you're not using it and that charge is ready for you the next day. From a customer point of view, it's trying to push that you don't need to go to a special place to fill your car with energy anymore. You can do this in the convenience of your own home. You can do it on street through Ubitricity if you want. And that's changing customer's behaviour. It's difficult to do. Rapid charges just seem to be a way to get current petrol drivers turned around to the idea and that shouldn't just be what we're doing. We've got the opportunity to try and rewrite the rule book.

It's kind of almost like the plug-in hybrid scenario.

Yeah, exactly. It makes sense. You can see where a customer's view goes, but this is an opportunity to really try to change that behaviour altogether.

Thank you for that. That's the end of the long questions. The last segment we have is called the blitz, which is where we just ask you very quick questions and then you can either answer quickly or not so quickly.

So first one’s: solar panels or wind farms?

I have solar panels on my house.

Functionality or appearance?


Overnight or rapid? I guess we kind of answered that one already.


iOS or Android?


Favourite EV on the market right now?

Tesla. It’s the model Y that just came out, which we had somebody come to our offices, just before lockdown, and demonstrate the all-singing, all-dancing version of it. And the ‘back into the parking space’. It’s called ‘Tesla on a leash’ or something like that, where you do it through your app. That would be great if you could organise that for me. That would be fantastic.

Last but not least, what's your favourite app on your phone right now?

Let me have a look at my phone.

My favourite app that has been getting me through lockdown is actually a game. It's a poker app that I can play. I've actually invited all my mates, too. Instead of meeting up and socialising, doing whatever on a Friday night, we all sit there from like 10 o’clock at night until the late hours in the morning, playing virtual poker on our phones on zoom meetings like we are now. It's our form of socialising.

Awesome, thank you Tom.

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