This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Institute of Water Magazine, authored by Hayley Monks, Managing Director of Utilities for Gobeyond Partners, part of the Webhelp Group. 

The UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) is a bi-annual report into customer service, providing an in-depth, cross-sector view of UK consumer attitudes toward the service they receive from the companies who provide them with goods and services. 

The UKCSI covers the utilities sector, with the most recent publication from January 2022 including customer satisfaction insights from 17 water companies based in England and Wales. 

The macro picture is positive and customer satisfaction is improving, with the overall customer satisfaction index score increasing by 1.6 points when comparing Jan 21 with Jan 22.  Looking specifically at the utilities sector, where over half of companies included are from the water industry, we can see a similar positive improvement (+1.8 Jan 21 to Jan 22). 

The water industry should feel pleased with this score and overall trend. However, this is not the time for the sector to rest on its laurels and lose focus on customer satisfaction – the utilities sector ranks 12th of the 13 sectors included in the UKCSI.  Furthermore, the year ahead will be incredibly challenging with major societal issues around cost of living, recruiting and retaining staff and generally high customer expectations all becoming more prevalent. 

The ability to deliver excellent customer service will be increasingly difficult, but not insurmountable.  From creating a balance between the digital and the human, to supporting vulnerable customers as well as employees, the water industry can build on recent positive customer satisfaction scores by creating a sustainable customer journey to meet the challenges of 2022 and beyond. 

Here’s our four recommended areas of focus that will help ensure water companies stay on track to meet these challenges: 

Be available for your customers, creating a balance between the digital and the human 

It’s a very real conundrum for customer service leaders – how do you balance the desire to adopt digital, self-service and automation technologies with the need to develop deeper, more human relationships with customers? 

The number of customers choosing digital first journeys will continue to increase and having the technology in place to support this will remain crucial.  The subsequent human impact of this choice is a need for customer service advisors to manage more complex and sensitive conversations. 

As the servicing of more transactional demands (pay a bill, change direct debit, update address, for example) shifts online, the enquiries faced by customer service advisors inevitably become more challenging in nature.  Advisors previously deployed on transactional queries will need the confidence to manage escalations, complaints and other complex queries.  A different skillset is required – involving great listening, patience, questioning skills and an ability to recognise customer vulnerability, alongside the ability to offer knowledgeable sign-posting that can help get customers the right information at the right time. 

Enabling the human capability to manage this shift will require focus on both existing training approaches and recruitment strategies, if executed properly then a satisfactory customer experience can be assured. 

Make best use of your data and technology to support your customers  

The volume of data and analytics available to support customer service teams has never been greater, from speech analytics to customer account data, customer feedback and much more, but it’s the harnessing of this data that will allow the best water companies to stand out from the competition. 

This is important for high priority customers, including those who may be vulnerable to the effects of the ongoing cost of living crisis, or those who are digitally excluded.  Finding ways to connect with people without broadband, smartphones, tablets, and other digital tools and supporting them effectively through intelligent use of contact centre data and technology is essential here. 

For example, the deployment of a speech analytics platform that can interpret conversations at scale, categorising through topics, sentiment and emotion, can prove instrumental in identifying vulnerability and alerting advisors when further support is required. 

Be flexible and ready to manage increases in customer demand 

Water companies, and the wider utilities sector in general, often have short-term, immediate demand challenges.  This can be the result of fast growth in customer numbers or a greater than planned volume of inbound queries from the expected growth in vulnerable customers, impacting the ability to maintain customer service levels.  Hiring and training new employees to meet this often transient demand is seldom cost-effective, making flexible demand solutions where outsourcers can rapidly deploy teams of highly skilled customer service advisors to help maintain high levels of customer experience worth considering. 

Support your people to deliver great customer service 

There has been a lot reported around the ‘Great Resignation’ and its impact upon headcount and increasing talent competition.  As a result, development and training programmes, alongside employee engagement initiatives and workplace flexibility have never been more important tools when it comes to attracting and retaining the right people who can deliver great customer service. 

Development and training shows an investment in your people, with the re-skilling and up-skilling of front-line advisors, particularly in the development of personal skills such as problem solving and diagnosis, will help your team prepare for the increasingly complex nature of customer service. 

We’re also seeing an increase in gamification for learning as a means of developing advisor competency and supporting knowledge retention. This approach helps develop those increasingly important skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, social awareness, cooperation, and collaboration.  Often motivational in nature, gamification can have a positive impact on attrition. 

In our own business, we have accelerated our thinking in the working model space, from home working, to office based and a mix of hybrid models.  This has led to the development of our Webhelp Anywhere methodology, a structured way of supporting clients with new ways of working, providing them with the flexibility to hire customer service advisors from anywhere and to develop their own work-from-home strategy  

Water companies are getting many things right from a customer service perspective, the improving UKCSI score is a clear indicator of this.  However, major societal issues around cost of living, staffing and customer expectations are taking hold and will put a huge strain on the capability to deliver excellent customer service.  In addressing the four areas above, we’re confident that the sector can keep customer satisfaction levels on a continuing positive trend. 

At Webhelp, we are primed to support you with any plans you may have for strategic growth and customer solutions.

If it sounds like we could provide a solution for you, don’t hesitate to get in touch

Hayley Monks

Managing Director, Utilities

Get in touch