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How can the utilities sector better handle customer complaints?

27th Jun 2019
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The utilities sector is one of the most complained about in the UK. What can water and energy companies learn from such a high volume of vexation?  

Customer complaints are always a disappointment – but also a valuable learning opportunity.

This is particularly pertinent in the UK's much-maligned utilities sector, in which complaint handling is not only a reflection of commercial performance, but also a key part of regulatory requirements.

Ofwat’s assessment of water companies under its price review 2019 (PR19) process, has put customer satisfaction in the spotlight – with high expectations in terms of customer service improvements.

Similarly, Ofgem continues to set the bar high, having ordered 11 of the UK's biggest suppliers to drastically improve how they deal with complaints, earlier this year.

Customer satisfaction index

Utilities companies do appear to be responding to this pressure. Despite the January 2019 UK Customer Service Index (UKCSI) finding that utilities is among the lowest-scoring sectors for customer satisfaction, complaint handling was a relatively positive story for water companies in particular, with the sector performing above the UKCSI all-sector average.

Ultimately, given increasing regulatory demand, there is always more that both water and energy companies can strive for in improving and streamlining their complaints procedures.

Billing, for example – a key utility customer touchpoint – has long been highlighted as the number one source of complaints that customers would like to see improved.

At their core, complaints offer a valuable window into supplier service offerings, viewed from a customer perspective, and are therefore a key opportunity to find issues, fix them and monitor impact.

Identifying service issues

In order to resolve a complaint and learn and change as a result, it’s vital to first pinpoint the initial cause of the customer’s frustration.

A robust complaints database and reporting dashboard are two essential resources in this process, allowing for an examination of service failure themes and root cause trends, as well as highlighting the cost of getting things wrong.

This should be combined with insight from other key barometers such as customer satisfaction survey information and employee feedback. Often, this holistic view will pinpoint the same themes, further validating the need for change.

Given increasing regulatory demand, there is always more that both water and energy companies can strive for in improving and streamlining their complaints procedures.

However, data and insight are only of true value if used effectively to drive change. This relies on resource, the commitment to analyse the data, and looking beyond it to uncover the real issues.

Deep-dive sessions can help; taking a complaint theme and bringing teams together to examine the issue from the customer viewpoint and discuss what went wrong, where and most importantly what can be changed to improve service failings.

Ensuring organisational buy-in

The key outcome of complaints procedures must be lasting change, driven by a deliberate learning process. Only then do complaints have the power to create company-wide transformation on a large scale.

However, in order for this to work, utilities providers must make more effort to bring the whole organisation in. 

It’s vital that complaints teams are fully integrated within the company as a whole if true change is to take place. They must also be afforded top-level endorsement to ensure that conflicting departmental priorities, budgets and viewpoints do not come above valid needs of the customer.

What’s more, customer experience should be viewed as the responsibility of everybody in the organisation. All teams – whether customer-facing or not - should be aware of how their actions impact the end customer.

Board-level steering groups can help – including representation from all areas of the organisation and resulting in joint decisions and accountability for change programmes identified through the customer complaints window.

Overcoming ineffective systems

Technology should enable innovation, efficiency and drive improved service. However, many utility providers are being let down by inflexible software that is hindering their agility and customer experience ambitions.

This is especially true when it comes to billing, currently the most common reason for customer complaints in the utilities sector. Many legacy billing and CRM systems don’t allow companies to instigate real change and can obstruct even the best customer-centric improvements.

Deploying agile solutions that are built to enable flexible, independent modification, can reduce the cost – and increase the speed – of change in customer-facing operations. This empowers utility providers to improve their customer journeys and reduce complaints as a result.

Utilising team strengths

All employees - not just customer service staff - can sometimes be the cause of customer complaints – although not always knowingly, or through any fault of their own. Often this is due to knowledge and skills gaps resulting from ineffective new starter programmes, failing to keep teams updated, or insufficient training and coaching support.

Investing in people, and taking the time to listen to their concerns, can support complaint reduction. Moreover, recognising and rewarding those who are doing well will help drive the right behaviours across your teams.

Gaining insight from employees is arguably as important as gaining insight from customers. For example, if they find a particular aspect of a customer journey troublesome, it’s likely that customers do too; involving frontline teams in customer journey workshops can really help when coming up with practical ways forward.

Gaining insight from employees is arguably as important as gaining insight from customers.

However, don’t forget to be inclusive in your approach; it’s vital that operations and customer service work together and not in silo. Back office teams, field-based teams and outsourced partners – although not all directly customer facing – can be a cause of complaints. Although customer service might not be their direct concern, it’s vital they view customer experience as a priority to help avoid unnecessary customer dissatisfaction and potential complaints.


Finally, being honest and transparent cannot be underestimated, especially in a market where customer choice is greater than ever, and customer retention and loyalty are key concerns as a result.

A valuable method is a ‘you said, we did’ mechanism, in which the complaint and its subsequent handling process are clearly communicated to the customer. This shows that their opinion was both valued and acted upon.

Looking at the long term

Overall, whilst it’s true that complaints will never be desirable for any business, they are also at times an inevitable part of the customer journey. Complaints handling and resolution should therefore be a central focus. However, perhaps more importantly, utility companies must learn from complaints and use the intelligence gained to proactively improve service for all customers.


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