How energy businesses can win customer approval.

When Ed Milliband announced that an incoming Labour government would freeze energy prices he created a political hot potato thatÂ’s still sizzling. He also revealed just how poor the energy industryÂ’s relationship with its customers has become; when politicians gang up on you to make themselves appear more loveable, you can be sure you have few friends.  UK consumers donÂ’t much like their energy providers and its beginning to matter.  Political and regulatory scrutiny is making it hard to do business and maintain profits.  Helen Murray, Chief Customer Solutions Officer at Webhelp UK argues that its time to win the hearts and minds of energy consumers with straight talking and helpful information, all delivered via the communications channels your customers want to use.

In surveys of much-loved companies, energy providers do badly.  In a CNN survey of the UKÂ’s most admired companies none appeared in the top 50.  In lists of top brands none feature.  When Which? compiled a survey of customer satisfaction a lone energy company came 99th out of 100. How have things got so bad?  Primarily because the only term of reference most customers have for their energy provider is price they pay (too high) and the most impactful communication they receive is the bill, which is often so hard to figure out they are forced to phone for an explanation.  

The energy company that can convince its customers to commend them for service rather than condemn them for price will have scored a home run, deflecting political and regulatory attention and making customer loyalty an achievable goal.  And thereÂ’s another reason to focus on customer service these days.  The Retail Market Review, which aims to simplify energy tariffs, will make it difficult for providers to differentiate on the basis of price.  Utility itself is uniquely undifferentiated and, when price is taken out of the equation, there is only one way to go in order to make customers sit up and take notice; to dramatically outperform the competition in terms of customer service.

But how can a quality of customer service powerful enough to turn the tide of customer opinion be afforded?  Though consumers believe energy retailers make too much, their profit on the average bill was estimated to be only around 5% in 2013.  And, many providers would argue, they have been absorbing rises in wholesale prices and operational costs in order to prevent even more painful price hikes hitting the consumer.

Points in your favour

Thankfully, two factors are working in your favour.  First customers want to self-serve via digital channels and, second, by allowing them to do so you can dramatically reduce the cost of customer contact.  All of this depends, however, on being able to make those channels ‘danceÂ’; so that customers can always find the information and answers they want without having to pick up the phone.  

I recently heard of an electricity provider in mainland Europe that has optimised its website for customer service to the point where it is now handling 44% of all customer contact online.  By deflecting calls from the contact centre, it has reduced its cost to serve by 25% and, in  case youÂ’re wondering, its Net Promoter and customer satisfaction scores are among the highest in the European industry.  

From this you might assume that all you need to do to make customers happy (and save money to boot) is to add self-service channels.  However, youÂ’d only be half right.  Adding channels one on top of the other is not the answer.  To move forward you need to focus on integrating those channels, managing their performance and maximising their potential to deliver positive outcomes – for you and your customers. 

Imagine how this omni-channel scenario might work in your businessÂ…

Omni-channel scenario: Changing provider

infographic on omni-channel customer experience management in utilities & energy sector

Four things have been achieved here.  First, youÂ’ve acquired a customer quickly and efficiently, capturing the customerÂ’s attention and not allowing him to be diverted.  Second, youÂ’ve convinced him that the switch will be hassle-free.  Nobody wants hassle.  Third youÂ’ve captured his response to the process, convincing him that you at least care what he thinks and making sure you get feedback to drive further process improvements.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, youÂ’ve given him something extra over and above the energy he expects and a tariff that suits him for now.  

The mobile app you have provided is an opportunity for ongoing dialogue around an issue you know he cares about – reducing his energy consumption in order to put money back in his pocket.  IÂ’m aware of some utilities that are analysing smart meter information to send customers personalised energy saving advice via their mobiles.  I know of others that are introducing a ‘gamingÂ’ element, by helping customers compete with others in their neighbourhood to get the best energy saving results.

And remember, once youÂ’re connecting by mobile, you have a direct route to communicate with customers via a device that 7 out of 10 UK adults prefer and carry with them most of the time .   This closer relationship with the customer – and connection to their preferred communication devices – opens up a new world of proactive communication opportunities.  Imagine, for example, if you could inform customers of a power outage just by sending an SMS to their smartphones.  Expensive call peaks in your contact centre could become a thing of the past.  

Shaping behaviour

Having a joined up omni-channel approach, as I hope IÂ’ve demonstrated, enables an organisation not only to communicate in ways customers want, but to shape customer behaviour in order to generate positive business results, as in our switching scenario.  But scenarios like this donÂ’t happen by accident; they are carefully designed and orchestrated to deliver the best effect.

At Webhelp we refer to an ‘omni-channel two-stepÂ’. The first step is to facilitate customer journeys.  It calls for a 360° view of the customer across integrated channels and allows you to anticipate and accommodate your customersÂ’ desire to channel hop.

The second step is to shape customer journeys.  It is here that analytics comes to the fore.  Once youÂ’ve integrated channels you can begin to examine how customers use them.  You can see where they hit road blocks and remove them, or identify opportunities to streamline the journey for the customersÂ’ convenience and your own economy.   In short, you can work progressively and relentlessly towards optimal customer journeys that are efficient and profitable for you as well as satisfying for the customer.  

The energy industry doesnÂ’t have to be the politiciansÂ’ whipping boy.  Developing omni-channel customer management capabilities will enable it to get off the back foot and convince customers that it can positively interact in ways that enhance its standard utility offering and add value to their lives.

Contact Helen on LinkedIn with your questions or comments.