10 ways to supercharge employee engagement and customer service

Customer satisfaction scores for utilities are at their lowest level for eight years but companies that find ways of engaging their workforce more effectively may climb the rankings before others, as industry experts explain.

The energy industry has work to do to make the customer experience better. This year’s UK Customer Satisfaction Index saw utilities slumped at the bottom of the table of the 13 industries the index considers, below transport and local and national public services (utilities’ score of 71.7 out of 100 in the 2023 report was the sector’s worst since 2015).

Keeping customers happy is critical to not only retaining them, but also meeting today’s toughest industry challenges. Happy, engaged customers are more likely to embrace new ways of consuming energy and water and think about infrastructure investment in relation to climate change, for example.

Utilities understand this. Recent research by Utility Week and ServiceNow found 100% of respondents agreeing improving customer experience is important, with 88% saying it is essential to organisational success.

But just how do you go about boosting scores when satisfaction is tanking?

Improving the experience of your employees is a great place to start. In fact, the Utility Week / ServiceNow research found 94% of respondents agreeing and 73% strongly agreeing that “excellent employee experiences lead to excellent customer outcomes”.

To find out more, we got a panel of industry experts together to dive a bit deeper into the research findings and give us their (anonymous) views on employee engagement.

Here’s their top 10 tips:

1. Look after… well, everybody

The HR director of a power network that has turned around a “highly disengaged” culture over the past decade keeps it simple, saying: “Look after your employees and make sure you are the type of employer where people are proud to come and work. Look after your customers and communities and support local businesses.”

Caring for employees and their pride in the job has a direct correlation with improved customer relations. “You need someone on the call who is completely engaged and trying to solve a problem for the customer as if they were one of their mates or family,” adds the head of customer experience at an electricity and gas retailer.

2. Provide incentives

Agents need to be incentivised to provide great service, explains a network director of customer services and innovation. “In our call centres we use remote working as an incentive: you can work for as long as you like at home if you provide the right service. If the service degrades, you are back in the office. What we find is work from home days outperform office days.”

“Nobody wants to lose their opportunity to work from home,” adds a colleague. “But you’ve got to be consistent. When people underperform you have to be prepared to address it.”

3. Lead visibly and effectively

Leaders and managers who are both visible and visibly get things done are a winning combination. “None of us is above talking to a customer and if you think you are, you’re in the wrong job,” explains the energy retailer on our panel.

Getting senior leaders out on the floor of the contact centre or depot first thing, willing to receive sometimes uncomfortable feedback from workers, is another method of building engagement. One industry figure says they even offer a prize for the employee with the most provocative query to ensure the process isn’t sanitised.

Another tells the story of how a niggling issue with a cable jointing kit requiring replacing a 20p part was solved thanks to this approach – and because senior managers publicly committed to sorting it out.

4. Break down barriers

It’s important for engagement that people are not working in siloes. “A culture of trust means demolishing siloes,” explains the customer service director at a water company. “When I came into the job, we had seven layers of teams, and it was quite a painful first year.

“I was sitting there with my team, and we thought we were knocking engagement ideas out of the park. But when I went and spent time with frontline staff, I realised there was a complete communication breakdown.”

5. Empower your agents

Do you have an ‘if you were the boss morning’? If not, perhaps you should follow the example of the utility that asks frontline staff what they would do if they were running the company. This way, the organisation learnt call centre workers were rushed and needed more time to provide good customer service. This meant making compromises, but it showed management was prepared to listen to employees’ ideas.

(The same company also provides Uber accounts to contact centre staff with allowances to spend to assist customers who are running late because of a call.)

6. Be aware of cultural differences

Experts pointed out it’s important to understand the cultural factors that impact engagement and customer service when an organisation has call centres in different geographies.

For example, one of our panel said there was a disconnect between his operation in the UK and a call centre in South Africa. “They are outsourced. We have not done enough to bridge the gap, to make sure they feel like colleagues, like family,” he admits.

The water company customer service director said running a smart meter campaign from the same country was a mistake. “People in Cape Town do not view water meters as beneficial for bill identification in the way we do. If you have a smart meter installed in South Africa, it’s a punitive measure by the government because you are using too much water. We really should have recognised that!”

The electricity and gas head of customer experience adds it is not always possible for far-off agents to empathise with the concerns of customers in the UK. “We put in some calls and realised we had hundreds of people working for us who had no idea what a gas-fired central heating system was.”

7. Get your onboarding right…

One utility HR manager we surveyed observed there was a “cliff-edge” approaching for skills. Getting people into the business can be tough, with shortages reported in engineering, craft skills, jointing, project management, SAP, and data analytics to name just a few areas. “The biggest issue with onboarding has been finding people with the skills we need because they are not out there anymore,” she says.

Getting the onboarding process right is therefore all-important given that skilled people are scarce. But it provides the opportunity to create personalised management and development plans based on information about preferred learning styles, motivations and career priorities. And doing that makes retaining skilled workers more likely.

8. …and get your offboarding right

OK, so someone’s decided to leave the business. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of their journey with the company. Effective offboarding can help retain knowledge that would otherwise disappear into the ether. One utility we spoke to retains retirees for a couple of days a week or uses them to mentor new leaders, for example.

The HR director from the network comments: “We recognise that some people don’t necessarily want a career with us but value the interesting work we do. That means they might come back to us three or four years later having progressed and learnt how to do something else.

“The traditional career model doesn’t always recognise that someone might have four periods of service with you in their career. That becomes an asset, whereas it used to be a question mark.”

9. Find the root cause of problems

The head of customer service at one transmission company says she loves using data for root cause analysis. “I use data models and Six Sigma all the time to drill down until you find the cause. If you’re looking at the heat map of a customer journey on the website, and it drops off at a certain point, nine times out of 10 it’s because someone forgot to put the correct form on the website.”

She adds she formerly worked at a major telecoms company where we were “opening up call centres in India and adding chatbots like there was no tomorrow, and the service wasn’t getting any better. All you had to do was find the root cause.”

10. Work smarter

Finally, our panellists said (perhaps inevitably) they were using the latest tech to engage employees. The customer service director at the water company is piloting a system called Clever Nelly that uses AI to target contact centre operators with multiple choice questions during downtime from calls to improve their knowledge.

He explains: “If I am having to ask someone on a living-wage role to absorb lots of new information, navigate all our complex and historical processes and procedures, and then talk to customers about it – and some of those customers and procedures they might not talk about every day – knowledge retention is important, especially when someone is in their 20s.”

Want to learn more about using digital service to improve customer service in the water industry? We’ve got you covered here.