How can the utility sector rebuild consumer trust?

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Utility companies not only lag other sectors when it comes to customer satisfaction but they have also lost the trust of the public. The media continue to report on a 'broken' energy market which is failing to provide for customers, and politicians have also helped stoke the debate by ensuring a highly publicised grilling of energy company bosses by the Energy & Climate Change committee in October 2013.

Yet, whatever your stance on the debate, it must be recognised that this storm of criticism comes as our utility companies face a once-in-a-generation challenge. With a substantial proportion of generating capacity scheduled for retirement over the coming decade, reducing our buffer to withstand supply disruption at times of peak demand, energy companies must square this massive investment requirement with the affordability agenda.

Despite this, there is still plenty of scope for the utility sector to restore public trust. In fact, the findings of our latest utilities survey found there is a real appetite within the industry to regain the initiative, with 93% believing that utility companies should take the lead to re-establish confidence in the sector.

Reversing this tide of negativity will not be easy. After all, utility companies alone cannot address the structural and market factors that contribute to high energy prices. But they can take steps to rebuild trust by improving communication and customer service. In fact, poor communication was cited by 94% of respondents as one of the most significant factors driving energy customers to switch supplier, second only to price (99%) and followed by lack of trust (91%).

Thin margins may leave little scope to reduce bills but customer anxiety about energy prices can be mitigated by good customer service backed by transparent and accurate bills. After all, utility companies not only supply essential services of water, heat and electricity but also build and maintain strategic national infrastructure, ranging from offshore wind arrays and North Sea gas fields to sewage works and high voltage transmission networks – and they do this at a price that is lower than the EU-wide average. Yet the debate, mystifyingly for our continental neighbours, is one about high prices rather than value for money, the factor that our respondents rated highest for its importance to customer satisfaction.

Ultimately, any step towards change must be underpinned by good customer service if it is not to quickly ring hollow. Achieving this may be easier said than done but here are some simple steps that can be made to ensure public faith is restored:

1. Invest in the correct infrastructure - for years, errors in bill estimations, re-assessment of payment plans and inaccurate communication have contributed to low consumer confidence in the utilities sector. Getting these simple things right has never been more important to restore trust. The smart use of specific IT solutions can improve customer experience and more importantly, add real value to the business. For instance, a focused root-cause-analysis followed by designing an algorithm targeted at reducing exceptions, resulted in bringing down billing efforts by 70% while reducing the exceptions backlog by over 14 million.

2. Embrace social - apart from providing platforms to better engage with customers, social media provides another exciting opportunity. It enables utility companies to track customer behaviour and use debt propensity analytics to increase recovery rates. Despite this, utilities are reticent to engage with customers on their own terms. Only a quarter of respondents felt it was very important to offer 24-hour customer service channels even though 82% reported demand from customers to communicate via social media and other non-traditional channels. There is a clear gap here that can be filled and those who harness the power of social media will be better able to react quickly to customer concerns, providing real-time reassurance and customer engagement.

3. Use data to make informed business decisions - there is a lot of truth in the old management adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. Simply put, getting to grips with big data has given managers an unprecedented level of insight into current business processes, enabling them to learn more about how well things work than ever before. Yet the reality is that the amount of data available to organisations today - about customers, competitors, operations, risk, regulations and the market - is overwhelming. The new information technology and operational technology (IT and OT) capabilities that energy & utility companies will need to develop are the management and exploitation of that data, creating information to enable predictive asset management, secure, optimal network operations, and a 'knowledge base' that will become increasingly essential to support the full life cycle of assets in the new, more complex, operating model.

Despite the often shrill and opportunistic tone of the public debate, the good news is that there is scope for the utility sector to restore public trust and for many, working with an external partner to address many customer concerns has now become a priority. More than half of respondents (53%) said greater use of outsourcing and shared services could yield cost savings that could be passed on to the consumer. Given an overwhelming majority (97%) identify price as the most important factor when consumers switch energy supplier, any measures that can reduce the cost to the customer should be a business priority. Ultimately, utility companies may have a long journey ahead when it comes to restoring public faith, but there is a path that can be followed to achieve it.

Sulakshana Patankar is business unit leader, utilities, at WNS Global Services.

About Sulakshana Patankar

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