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The customer always comes first

The customer always comes first

Interview: Jeroen Hoencamp

"It's about time we stopped seeing customers as numbers, but as the point of departure." Strong words from Jeroen Hoencamp, VodafoneZiggo's new boss. Despite his past as a Marine, he's not a fan of the top-down approach. He came up with his first business case at the age of 12 and he sees the merger as an exciting, wonderful adventure.

But who is Jeroen Hoencamp? Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
"I had a great childhood. I lived in Woerden until the age of 11, when we moved to Bavel near Breda. I have two sisters. We're a close family. As a kid I was crazy about sport, especially tennis, football and windsurfing." 

Were you an entrepreneurial boy?
"Yes, of course. My dad ran his own practice as a general practitioner. When I was 12 , I saw him carting off boxes full of envelopes containing invoices to the post office every quarter. I thought: hang on a minute; he's paying the PTT money to deliver the post. Surely there's another way? So I proposed to him to pay me about half as much and I delivered the post by bike. I earned quite a bit of pocket money doing so. Now I'd call it a 'win/win business case', but then it was really simple: me earning a few cents a letter meant that he didn't have to pay more than twice as much per letter."

Was that the reason you chose to study business administration later?
"Yes and No. I now have three teenagers at home, so I'm very aware that you don't know exactly what you want to become during this phase. 

And the same applied to me back then. I had completed my pre-university education, was aware of my commercial flair and was ready for a practically oriented study. The direction of study could in fact have been different, but my choice for Nyenrode was deliberate. Campus life appealed to me: intense, social and practically oriented." 

And then you decided to become a Marine. Can you explain this choice?
"I always want to explore my own limitations and improve myself. I had to go to the army because of national service, but I didn't want to spend a year polishing weapons, running around an assault course every now and then.

A fellow student spoke to me enthusiastically about the officers' training at the Marine Corps. When I heard that several thousands of young men applied each year, that only 30 were selected, and that at least half of them ultimately dropped out before the end, I was sold. My curiosity was triggered. I wanted to take on this challenge!

I served for two years. I was 23 and wanted to be the very best that I could. It genuinely felt like an adventure, the stuff you read about in boys' books. At that age, dealing with weapons, aircraft and helicopters, makes you feel tough. What's more, I was surrounded by highly driven, highly trained people. In all honesty: you hardly realise that there are very real dangers as well."

Did things ever get really dangerous?
"When the Gulf War broke out, there was a serious chance that my team would be sent to Iraq. At a particular moment you get what's known as a '24-hour notice'. Then you have to be on standby, fully packed, to be dispatched within 24 hours. Fortunately, that never happened to me, but it did happen to my successor, for example. And when you hear about that, you realise that it's not a game at all."

Did that realisation play an important role in prompting you to do something else?
"No, I had two other reasons.

Firstly, in the military, you can  pretty much work out where your career will get to. Because I came in to do my national service and didn't study at the Royal Netherlands Naval College (KIM), I could never become a general. That was clear. Not that I necessarily wanted to reach the highest rank, but the fact that this was not an option from the get-go didn't feel good. 

What's more, I began to feel the heavy load of the top-down structure. I understand the need for it, especially in a military institution… After all, you're talking about matters of life and death. Under such circumstances, you have to follow orders. But I do have difficulties with authority, I've noticed. I don't thrive in an exclusively hierarchical organisation. These two insights prompted my decision to choose for another direction."

With people who switch from the military to the business community, their leadership style often reflects this top-down mentality. How does this work in your case?
"While I do believe in strong leadership, I see it as creating clarity, giving direction, gathering good people around you and motivating people. I don't believe in giving very rigid top-down instructions at all.

But I did retain a number of other characteristics from my time with the Marines. For example, I'm extremely disciplined. I always arrive on time. At least, I always aspire to. I'm also really organised: my desk is always clear, I save everything electronically and at home I can find the most important things within no time – even with my eyes shut."

You achieved your MBA in America and then went to work at Canon. What was that like?
"I learned so much. I landed in the very hard world of selling copying machines. Sales are exceptionally competitive in this sector. We sold the first colour laser printers to big companies. There was room for wild plans, so I decided to use our own machines to develop and print colour folders and send them to potential clients. This generated better results than cold calling. And there it was: I actually excelled far more in marketing than in hard-core sales." 

Back in the Netherlands, you worked at Skala. What kind of company is that?
"Skala rents out equipment such as TV sets, washing machines and fridges. Most people in the Netherlands simply buy one, but people with an extremely low income who have to run a household cannot pay the full price in one go. Take single-parent families or people on benefits. I started off at Skala's marketing department, where I learned to communicate with such a specific target group. I learned an enormous amount in terms of segmentation, managing customer groups and marketing in general. In the end, I managed the entire sales organisation in the Netherlands: shops, call centres, etc." 

And then?
"I was ready for my next challenge. First I travelled the world for nine months with my girlfriend, who is now my wife. We visited the most amazing dive sites you can imagine. I can thoroughly recommend Belize and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It's an unforgettable feeling to see a group of six-metre wide manta rays swimming past you. It was the journey of a lifetime."

You joined Vodafone 19 years ago. Were mobile phones back then just as big as irons?
"It was indeed another world; hardly imaginable now. Back then, my father asked me: 'This mobile business, do you think it'll catch on? You can make a call at the garage can't you? Or wait until you get home?'

Vodafone Netherlands was a group of pioneers with big plans and innovations. The early years were exciting and uncertain. But it soon became clear that there was a gigantic need for communication using mobile phones. We had to adjust everything upwards: each business case, each growth forecast. At that time, we were the biggest challenger competing against KPN. That fuelled us with an insatiable urge to innovate, a winner's mentality.

The landscape is radically different today: the number of players has increased. Vodafone and Ziggo have both become far bigger and more professional. The merger will shake things up again, set everything in motion. Once again we've become the biggest challenger for KPN. And we're ready to meet this challenge."

How did you become acquainted with Ziggo?
"When I still lived in the UK, but already knew of my appointment to this position, I took an in depth look into Ziggo as a consumer. I instantly ordered a package online, a highly skilled technician visited to install everything and I received excellent support from the call centre. I think Ziggo is a fantastic company with good products and a very strong network. Unfortunately, due to competitive sensitivity, I've haven't had the chance for a proper deep-dive into Ziggo . But this is first on my to-do list starting in January 2017."

What initial steps would you like to take with VodafoneZiggo?
"Merging these two companies may seem like a tricky job at first glance, but let's not forget that we have more in common than many might think. Good networks, good products, good service, strong brands, well-financed parent companies. And not forgetting: a very healthy dose of commercial spirit. This will only serve to strengthen one another.

If you consider how good service is at present, you can only imagine how things will be once we've seamlessly connected everything up in the years ahead. An integrated network unifying fixed and mobile, your favourite content on all your devices, a joint portfolio of products and services, and excellent service through all channels.

But one aspect needs to be strengthened further: customer focus. VodafoneZiggo must become a company that acts entirely in response to its customers' needs. We construct a better network for the customer, we market products for the customer, and the way our company is set up is based on customer perceptions."

Does our focus lean too heavily on earning money?
"Not too heavily, but it is our focus. Both companies are very financially driven. If we talk about results, we're referring almost exclusively to turnover and profit. These are certainly important values in our sector, and of course we also have our responsibilities in relation to shareholders and stakeholders… But I think we still need to talk more about the customer. I want to focus on customer satisfaction and loyalty. I want to know how customers perceive us. How quickly we answer the phone. How many complaints we resolve in one go. This information is just as important to me as profitability. If you genuinely keep customers happy and surprise them in a positive sense, your company will perform far better in the long term – financially as well.

Luckily, Vodafone and Ziggo are both keen on market research. I want us to adjust our products and services even more on this basis. But we're still facing a number of hurdles. For example, I'm no fan of terms such as RGU: revenue generating unit. I understand that we need units like this in our systems, but customers cannot simply be reduced to numbers. Customer centricity must feature throughout our organisation."

"Customers cannot simply be reduced to numbers"

Will your colleagues see a lot of you?
"I was working in Maastricht more than 10 years ago, with a personal secretary, in a beautiful office on the fourth floor. And I naturally said to everyone: 'My door is always open.' Guess what? Nobody just walks in unannounced! What's more, I was often on the road or in a meeting. But as far as I'm concerned that's where the solution lies: I'm incredibly flexible. Since then, I haven't had my own office – I can be found on the shop floor more often than ever. And that won't change for VodafoneZiggo: you'll run into me at the call centres, the shops, the departments. I'm looking forward to meeting you soon."

What kind of corporate culture do you envision for VodafoneZiggo?
"An open culture in a flat organisation. This means a simple business structure, short lines of communication, very customer centric, with loads of space for creative ideas and new insights. I want us to continue challenging the established order and innovate. Yes, although we're a huge company with a workforce of 8,000 people, together we can make it feel smaller than it is. I'll be focusing on a customer-oriented, innovative organisation. Where people want to workand where colleagues talk proudly about what they do. 

I can appreciate that this is an exciting period, certainly so soon after the previous merger between Ziggo and UPC. Some of us can't wait to get going, others are uncertain. I appreciate both sides. But, in the period ahead, I hope we come to see the merger more as an exciting, wonderful adventure. There are plenty of opportunities; I can't wait to seize them. I'm convinced that together, we can build an even greater, more beautiful, successful company."

What role will you play?
"I've noticed that at times like this, colleagues essentially need clarity, direction and vision. This requires strong leadership coupled with clear communication. That's what I stand for. I've put together a team of strong people around me and we're going to be taking bold steps together in the coming period."

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Interview: Vincent Mirck (VodafoneZiggo), photos: Marieke Odekerken