Industry views: Customer experience and the utility sector

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Companies everywhere are facing a growing pressure to put customer experience at the heart of their businesses. In an era of increased competition, the empowered consumer can – and will – demand more from the brands they engage with.

This is no different in the utilities sector. With an increasing number of savvy consumers switching energy suppliers, it’s clear that companies looking to retain loyal customers need to examine when and why consumers switch brands.

Stepping up

Today’s energy industry is a commitment-free area. Growing competition and constant pressure from aggregators – where typically consumers change suppliers using price comparisons – is forcing companies to up their game to remain competitive. Price is no longer enough: customer experience and personal incentives are key.

With utilities providers looking to catch up with other sectors in terms of customer experience, we’re starting to see a real change. Encouragingly, customer satisfaction in the industry as a whole is improving faster than any other sector in the UK. But at the same time, Google Trends data reveals interest in switching hit a four-year high earlier this year.

This suggests that the battle in the sector for customer loyalty is far from won, and there is a huge opportunity for providers who can get customer experience right. Smaller firms looking to penetrate the market must focus on doing things differently, while the ‘Big Six’ must change strategy to retain their customers. Companies now need to focus on what the barriers are to delivering a better experience, and how they can overcome them.

Different sectors, different experiences?

Today’s customers have high expectations, partly driven by the exceptional service offered in sectors such as retail and entertainment. But the nature of these industries is such that customer service is quite often easier to provide based on the positive contact points within the customer lifecycle.

In the retail sector, consumers tend to choose the stores that provide the experience they value. Think, for example, of the consumers who’d rather pay a premium on their clothes if it means experiencing a more pleasant shopping experience – and they are less inclined to complain about sub-par service.

However, in utilities, the customer is less likely to value the experience as highly. Consumers won’t generally call to thank utilities suppliers for the fantastic electricity they have enjoyed in their home, so companies need to think outside of the box when it comes to contact points and look at how they can develop a positive relationship with their customers.

Utility suppliers will also encounter customers in more complex situations. Providing a fundamental life altering service means there is a wider window for mistakes or reasons for dissatisfaction than in the retail sector. Being without electricity or water is considerably more inconvenient than being sent an item in the wrong size.

In these circumstances, the customer needs to feel supported by well designed, tailored processes that take into account their different journeys and needs. Indeed, it is these journeys where the battle for customer satisfaction and loyalty will be won or lost.

Getting it right

While customer experience may be harder to deliver in the utilities sector, it means there’s also more scope to get it right. Providers now need to go beyond expectations to deliver a fully integrated, personal omnichannel experience.

This comes down to three simple steps: get to know your customers, critically analyze your processes, and introduce true transformation to re-energize the business. While it sounds simple, many companies still struggle to get it right.

Get to know your customers

First things first: companies need to gain a greater understanding of their customers and behaviors across every stage of the customer lifecycle. By leaning on their analytics functions, companies can segment their customers not only by age and other standard demographics but also by behavior.

This will help develop an understanding of how your consumers like to interact with you, and how this may change according to the time of day, their location, or how they are feeling at that point in time.

This is an ever-changing requirement, so suppliers need to build flexibility and choice into the provision of their contact channels – particularly when considering different points in the customer lifecycle. It’s also important to remember that behaviors are likely to change depending on market trends: tariff variations, SMART metering, and connected home apps will all change how customers interact with your business.

At its core, good customer service reflects customers’ ability to promptly address a problem with an expert, without having to spend 20 minutes going through an automated process on the phone or waiting for several hours for a reply on webchat. Providers should also look to alternative contact channels, such as messenger within apps and interactive SMS, to give customers the most efficient and convenient service possible.

Analyze your processes

Customers now have more channels available to get in touch with brands than ever before, but this comes with its own teething problems. The rise of omnichannel also means the rise of channel bounce, where a customer is shunted from agent to agent and channel to channel until their problem is resolved. To an already frustrated customer, having to repeat themselves, again and again, only adds fuel to the fire, and could risk damaging their relationship with the company.

That’s why it’s critical that utility suppliers take the time to analyze internal and external processes impacting the customer experience, and understand each and every point of potential failure –  be it legacy systems, uninformed agents, or a broken website link – and work through solutions to resolve broken processes and enable smooth front end customer experiences.

Re-energize the business

By analyzing and simplifying practices, businesses can focus on the true value of the business – their people.

The key to great customer service is a flexible and dedicated team of associates, open to innovation whilst mindful of the difficulties a customer may face. Ensuring your team remains informed and empowered is critical. Making the most of empathetic training, engagement strategies and full circle feedback channels will help teams become passionate about providing valuable experiences, every time they pick up the phone or start typing.

Indeed, in today’s customer-centric world, it’s time we moved on from talking about the challenges of providing a good customer experience, and started focusing on finding the right solutions to reconnect utility companies with their customers.

Originally published in  Utility Week

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