Founders Diaries: Introducing XLN CEO Christian Nellemann

I started XLN in 2002 – my third successful startup – shortly after the telecoms market was deregulated. Back then, there really wasn’t any choice for small businesses. Phone calls and dial-up internet access were expensive, and the customer service was consistently poor. The window of opportunity this created was huge – both for me and the UK’s small business community.

After signing up the first few customers myself, the business grew rapidly. But what began as a price-led endeavour has become increasingly service-led. Our products are all utility type commodities so we have to be the cheapest, but I took the decision that we needed to differentiate ourselves by offering world-class customer service too. After all, what good is a £2 monthly saving if you have to spend an hour on the phone getting an issue resolved?

So while our competitors spent their customers’ money on large-scale advertising campaigns, XLN invested heavily in customer service. We brought our entire service operation back to the UK, employing more than 200 specialists in state-of-the art facilities in Sheffield. As a result, we’ve established a reputation for saving small businesses money as well as time and hassle. We answer all calls in person within three rings, and resolve 90 per cent of issues on the first call. Putting the customer and customer service first was an industry novelty, and we’re now reaping the rewards with the highest customer satisfaction rate in the market.

This transformation was triggered by a wide-reaching customer survey that asked what they needed and wanted from us – and what we could do better.

A recurring theme in the feedback was that small business owners felt overcharged, poorly served and in need of a company to champion their cause. But they also told me that their energy and credit card bills were crippling. For me, that was a real challenge and a cause close to my heart.

So we added card processing and energy into our product range, which has helped us to accumulate 130,000 customers. But I feel we are only getting started.

We’ve also recently launched XLN WiFi – a public WiFi service that’s free for our eligible broadband customers, and free for their customers to use. We already have 15,000 hotspots, and we plan on having our WiFi on every British high street. We’re set for 20,000 hotspots by year-end and 30,000 by Easter 2017.

This is another industry first, and again it wasn’t necessarily the most obvious way of spending our money. WiFi is increasingly becoming something people expect, but public WiFi is complicated to deliver due to security and data concerns – hence why our competitors charge hundreds of pounds for installation and £20-£50 per month for use. We offer it free of charge to our customers and it allows them to compete with the giants without breaking the bank. I feel strongly that if we don’t help the independent retailers and small businesses to compete they may not be around in the future.

I’ve learnt so much in building XLN, probably more from my failures than I have from our successes. But what’s shaped the direction and growth of our company, above all else, is listening to my customers.

Over the last 15 years, when I’ve wanted to know where my business should head next, I’ve found that my customers always have the answer. I’d say that’s the best place to start for any business.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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