Michiel Valk (Essent): “Make sure that as IT, you are at the center of the organization”


Essent is taking the next step in the energy transition. Translating technology’s possibilities to employees and customers is essential, as is listening carefully to all stakeholders and customers. This is the domain of CIO Michiel Valk, recently nominated for the CIO of the Year Award.

What is currently the most significant task facing your organization?
“We must take new steps toward the energy transition. Recommending appropriate solutions to our customers is crucial. Customer circumstances vary widely; solar panels suit one customer, and insulation another. We must help them keep the bill affordable and take the next step in the energy transition. That is our biggest challenge.”

“Energy has become such a relevant product, everyone is concerned with it, whether it concerns affordability or more sustainable use. How do you ensure that a customer has the right insight into his energy consumption at all times? IT-wise, this is a huge challenge already. You must present the right data with the right insights, and it must always be available. Most of our customers’ think’ digitally; they use the app or the online environment.”

What role do IT, data, and digitization play, and what is your angle on this as a leader?
“You have to empathize very well with your customers. We work closely with our colleagues from various disciplines at Essent. But I also regularly visit the call center to understand what concerns customers. So that we do not make wrong assumptions about what is good for customers. We also have to ensure optimal connections between colleagues from marketing and operations on the one hand and IT on the other. Ensure you offer everyone the right solutions, test and improve them, and make short-cycle successes to solutions and increasingly better meet customers’ needs.”

“I see myself as a ‘chef de liaison’ who optimally connects IT, the other departments at Essent, and our customers – understanding what customers and stakeholders want to avoid making an incorrect assumption. I think making that connection is very important. Technology, of course, plays a vital role; you have to ensure that everything is available and scalable, but ultimately, it is about making digital products as accessible as possible. So that customers have insight into their energy consumption, keep control of it, and energy products provide them with convenience.”

What are you proud of?
“Due to the movement in the energy market, customers started using our app and online environment much more intensively. We initially had some problems with this; we had to ensure the performance remained stable. We have made great strides through our architecture and working method to renew it completely, and I am very proud of that.”

“I see myself as a ‘chef de liaison’ who optimally connects IT, the other departments at Essent and our customers”

“My IT colleagues want to understand the next steps in the energy transition. That is why we are now at the heart of the organization instead of being a supporter along the line. This way, we have a good idea of the consequences for our IT roadmap – confidence in the solutions that we as IT offer has grown enormously. I believe you must make technology understandable; ultimately, it is about its application in practice and that the people in the organization embrace it. When you do not understand each other – that’s where the difficulty lies. We want to understand each other, so you avoid developing something technically new and innovative that is ultimately useless to the customer.”

“We, therefore, work closely with our customer agents. We need to know how they work and think. The IT we offer should not stand in the way of optimal customer service. Understanding the employee experience and customer experience is important. This is becoming part of my profession more and more. Bringing these ways of thinking into the IT organization is often underestimated. Like IT people saying: ‘Oh, that is something for the business to deal with.’ I think that is incorrect; as an IT professional, you must understand things yourself.”

What challenges do you still face as a leader, and how will you try to solve them?
“The energy market is dynamic and will become even more dynamic. The question is, then, how do we become even more agile? How can we learn and innovate faster so that development cycles can become increasingly shorter? You cannot predict with one hundred percent certainty which technology, propositions, and products in the energy market will grow. In addition, legislation may change. So we must increase our speed without the quality and availability deteriorating; after all, we are open and available 24/7. I think that is a major challenge. Technology is complex in some respects; you have to deal with many systems, dependencies, and partners with whom you have to interact. How can we organize the environment in such a way that we can increase the speed even further? We have a program for this, Accelerate our future, in which we are taking steps to accelerate further.”

What is your motto? Do you have any recommendations for your peers?
“Make sure that you, as IT, are at the center of the organization. On the one hand, you must understand very well what the needs of all stakeholders are; on the other hand, you must also understand what the market and the customer need. Make sure you are at the center of that. See your colleagues at the business not as internal customers but as colleagues with whom you must get the job done. It’s really about connecting and working together.”