Utilities turn to new channels to mend damaged reputation

30th Jan 2014

With most of the UK taking a battering from the elements this winter, the utilities sector has had to weather a customer service storm of its own, as a result.

Price hikes at the end of 2013 kicked things off, but coupled with recent blackouts, slow crisis response rates and a general lack of information, many utility providers are now having to combat a mob of angry customers baying for blood, while wondering how to turn things around in the face of the growing resentment.   

Customer perception has never been so bad. Overall opinion of utility providers is at an all-time low, especially in relation to the ‘big six’.  Energy suppliers, who have been on the receiving end of most of the flak, are being described in some corners of the media as “the new banks”.

In response, providers are looking into ways to restore trust, and believe the damage repair job may start with increasing their presence through omnichannel services and developing smart meters as a customer service tool.

BT, a networks provider that, despite avoiding any public lynching this winter, has previously come under fire for its customer service processes, is currently studying the effects poor customer perception is having on the utilities sector, and the methods it believes will incite necessary change in the industry.

Channelling resources

In its most recent research report ‘What matters most -The expectations of a new generation of water and energy consumers’, the telephone and broadband giant highlights a shift in values among younger customers as an imminent catalyst for forcing utility providers to amend their approach to customer services.

It lists smart metering as the industry’s biggest game-changer, with data being the key to forging new levels of customer experience, and an omnichannel presence being the best method for improving current levels of customer perception.

Dr. Nicola Millard, BT’s futurologist and a central figure in driving the new customer service research, says providers face a number of issues, but have to start with working out a method for being more visible to customers:

“Utilities have one real challenge – the fact that customers don’t really notice them until they’re not there. Autonomous customers don’t really want to talk to their utilities suppliers, so there are usually only two touch points; when a bill arrives on your doormat and you want to talk it through, and when there is something urgently wrong, like your electricity is off or you have water gushing into places in your property you really don’t want.

“When we look around omnichannel research, the phone is almost always coming out as the most used channel for this kind of thing because generally when extreme things happen, it’s a crisis moment and people tend to lift the phone in these situations.

“But beyond that, we are realising we have to provide more for digital customers especially, whether it is through social media, a better use of IVR (Interactive voice response technology) and even live chat. Especially in terms of helping customers understand the billing processes.”

Getting smart with data

The demands are being complicated by a growing generational gap among service users. In a recent roundtable event held to gain more understanding of the varying demographic requirements, BT found its customers were now divided into two very distinct groups with very different needs - people aged 55+ who were only interested in price and keeping costs down, and a younger consumer, aged 18–35, who believes customer service to be the most important aspect of a utility provider.   

It also found that smart metering was changing how younger customers approached utilities. Rob McGinn, vice president for BT Global Services, feels ‘getting smart’ is also set to be central to how utility providers approach their customers:

“Utilities really have to wake up and realise the opportunities of smart metering, because if the younger generation expect a service, then this becomes a huge opportunity.

“The idea is we’re trying to provide a smart meter into every household that can feedback in real time what peoples’ consumption of power is in their house. Once energy companies get this data, they’ll start to be able to see usage patterns and could communicate with people to offer them services and tariffs that actually takes into account their real usage.

“Smart meters will help customers understand this better, and with all the information attached, the contact centres will actually know who customers are, how much power they use, time of day, and then offer them the right services and the right package and maybe give customers better advice about consumption as a result.

“If utility providers don’t grab this, someone else will. They have the relationships, the databases, etc. The smart meter data will enrich that information they have about customers even more, and this gives them the opportunity to move up the value chain from being a raw utility provider into a more all-encompassing service provider.”

Customer loyalty is said to be driving the push towards utility suppliers positioning themselves more as service providers, with BT’s recent roundtable suggesting younger customers were becoming more flexible to changing between providers. Coupled with the picture of utility suppliers being painted by the media, and Dr. Millard believes companies will have no choice but to become more customer experience-minded as a result:

“I think it’s pretty evident we need to be a bit more proactive. Be more tailored to certain customer needs. Get people on the best tariff, don’t wait for them to do it because there’s no reason customers should be loyal; and then we have to be more involved and make it easier for people to get in touch with us when they need to. There’s certainly more transparency required.”

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