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Utility firms improve online customer experience - but still need to improve

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3rd Dec 2008
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A new report reveals that utilities have significantly improved the customer usability of their websites - but more work remains. As a target for criticism over its customer service standards, and with the online channels a potential goldmine for them, how can utilities improve their online usability?

By Stuart Lauchlan, news and analysis editor

Utility firms have made significantly improvements in customer usability on their websites as they seek to drive customers online towards self-service options.

According to the 2008 Utility Website Usability Report produced by consultancy Webcredible, 15 out of 17 firms have moved from having "desperately low" usability scores in 2007 to registering "more respectable" ones in 2008. The average score last year was 47.7. This year's average was 58.7.

"The online channel is a potential goldmine for utilities if they can get their customers onto their websites to carry out account activities such as switching tariffs, providing meter readings and even transferring from other providers."

Ismail Ismail, director, Webcredible

The number of websites scoring over 60% rose from two last year to eight this year. Last year the average score was 47.7% but this year has risen to 58.7%. The firm picks out EDF Energy, Scottish & Southern Energy, Southern Water and Thames Water for increasing their scores by more than 20% year on year.

But it warned in spite of these improvements, it’s clear that energy and water supply websites do however have significant scope to improve the usability of their online offering. The potential benefits and cost savings of getting their users online can only be realised if the sites sign up to delivering a first class user experience. If users can’t find the information they need they’ll switch off and pick up the phone – or worse still they won’t bother at all.

“With so much of the UK population going online, the opportunity for energy and water supplier websites to increase their audience contact – especially with hard to reach groups – is huge. Usability will undoubtedly prove to be a key factor in the success of the online channel, particularly when it comes to transactional support for key user services," said Ismail Ismail, director at Webcredible.

“Quite simply, the majority of the 17 websites in this report aren’t doing enough to provide the best possible online experience to their users. Improvements have been made from 2007, but with the average score still in the 50s, further improvements can easily be made. Many of the energy sites scored poorly even with regards to basic usability fundamentals.”

Potential goldmine

Certainly it's true that utility firms can make massive cost savings if they interact with customers online. Increasing the usability of any website will increase the success users have in finding the information they need – it’s as simple as that. Improved usability will also lead to an increase in channel loyalty and return site visitors, and an improvement in the perception of the online and offline brand. This should also lead to a reduction in customer churn.

"Quite simply, the majority of the 17 websites in this report aren’t doing enough to provide the best possible online experience to their users."

Ismail Ismail, director, Webcredible

"The online channel is a potential goldmine for utilities if they can get their customers onto their websites to carry out account activities such as switching tariffs, providing meter readings and even transferring from other providers," said Ismail. "There are still far too many utilities not placing enough importance on their website usability which will no doubt lead to sustained or increased call centre volumes as customers are reluctant to use websites where they cannot easily complete the tasks they need.”

Webcredible has a number of suggested actions for utilities to take to ensure that they score well on the usability rankings. “One of the main goals for each of these online suppliers is of course for users to self-serve,” it notes in its report. “Key online tasks could include paying a bill, providing a meter reading, getting a quote, viewing prices and switching suppliers. As such, it’s crucial that every page within the relevant section has very strong calls-to-action to these key tasks.”

Utilities firms regularly come under fire for their levels of customer service. Earlier this year researchers at Iposos Mori declared that its research showed that utility company call centres have the worst track record for dealing with complaints. Nearly a third of respondents spent more than half an hour on the phone to their utility companies trying to resolve problems with their services.

More than one in four customers (27%) who had contacted a utility company by telephone in the past 12 months were dissatisfied with the way in which their calls had been handled. Nine out of ten respondents were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the way their last call to a landline provider had been handled. 87% of the calls causing dissatisfaction were to BT, while 81% calling a gas provider either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied – and of that number, 71% cited British Gas as the main offender.

How they rank (mark out of 100, and percentage change from 2007)

  • Energy suppliers
      EDF Energy 76 +22

      npower 75 +13

      British Gas 64 +11

      Scottish & Southern Energy 61 +26

      Scottish Power 57 +9

      E.ON 54 -16*

  • Water suppliers
      Southern Water 77 +26

      United Utilities 65 +12

      Thames Water 64 +26

      Severn Trent Water 61 +8

      Northumbrian Water 57 +7

      Anglian Water 56 +4

      Wessex Water 55 +14

      Yorkshire Water 52 +14

      Southwest Water 51 +1

      Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water 41 -8

      Scottish Water 32 +14

    Source: Webcredible

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