Dave Conway, director, KPMG Nunwood Customers, Smart metering, Opinion, Government and NGOs

Utility companies, wherever they are in the world, are facing similar challenges, as digital technologies begin to impact on the experience of customers. Dave Conway looks at the lessons the UK utilities sector can learn from the US.

Most utilities will recognise the acronym VOC as ‘voice of the customer’, or VOE as ‘voice of the employee’. However, when it comes to delivering world class customer experiences that enhance the bottom line, UK utilities would do well to study VOA – that is, the ‘voice of America’.

KPMG Nunwood recently published an examination of how the US is fairing in pursuit of customer experience excellence (CEE). The report – ‘engineering a human touch into a digital future’ – focuses on how the advanced use of digital technologies are impacting customer experience (CX) in the United States. Most pertinently, the report highlights the spectacular ability of a number of US utilities to deliver great CX, with one new entrant – a utilities company – ranking fifth place in the top-100 US brands. Moreover, US utilities overall obtained an 11 per cent lead on the UK in terms of the overall CEE score the sector achieved.

There is a prevailing belief that, whatever problem a business is facing, someone somewhere in the world will have tackled that problem before, and many of the best brands in KPMG Nunwood’s US CEE report are recognising that it can be highly instructive to look at what has worked and what hasn’t. Indeed, the majority of utilities ranking within the top-100 climbed the rankings significantly in the latest analysis.

KPMG Nunwood examines customer experience through the lens of the six pillars of customer experience. An analysis of 1.5 million customer evaluations of 1,300 global brands has shown that great organisations who consistently deliver excellent customer experiences excel in these six areas: personalisation, resolution, integrity, time and effort, expectations, and empathy. Unsurprisingly, the utilities brands that appear in the top-100 scored highly against each pillar.

At the heart of their transformation lies their preoccupation with their people, which is the foundation for the successful, ongoing delivery of the six pillars. One utility company’s customer services vice president noted that their commitment to their customers is pervasive throughout the organisation and integral to every customer contact.

The pillar with the largest improvement for these utilities is empathy. This pillar represents the ability of an organisation and its people to put themselves in the shoes of their customers, and to listen, understand and respond with emotional intelligence. One utility brand recognised that their employees are highly engaged, motivated and loyal, and added that this positive mind-set is demonstrated in every customer interaction where the employees strive to provide quality service and resolve issues at first point of contact. Elsewhere, another high performing utility simply described its employee as a family united in the service of the customer.

Personalisation is central to the experience, ensuring customers feel valued, important and treated as an individual. The rapid roll-out of smart meters and supporting technologies have helped here; there is a sense of encouraging people to think about managing their unique cost profile, rather than focusing on price. Furthermore, these businesses have invested in personalisation technologies to ensure that customers’ past histories are readily available to the staff who interact with them.

Smart meters have also contributed to an improvement in the resolution score. Remote diagnostics have made it possible to surface problems before the customer is aware of them, and businesses can often resolve situations in real-time, be it remotely or by equipping the customer to fix the issues themselves.

Customer expectations

At the very centre of any relationship is integrity and trust. After all, no customer wished to be left without power, nor do customers want to have a negative impact on the environment. Many of the top-performing utilities had made proactive efforts to identify the moments most likely to impact trust, with their efforts clearly paying off.

Time, meanwhile, is a critical resource for most people and, as such, activities that save time strongly influence how individuals feel about a company, and can affect their future loyalty. Each of the utilities companies ranking in the top-100 has closely examined their customer journey, analysing those activities which require excessive customer effort, and then redesigning them to deliver a significantly superior experience.

Finally, understanding customer expectations is the vital first step in ensuring that these expectations are actually met and, where advantageous, exceeded. One utility brand conducted intensive research into what their customers expected, and then invested considerable time in ensuring that these expectations were catered to. As such, the brand has driven a powerful change in how it communicates with its customers, making its messages as simple and honest as possible.

With the UK energy sector under pressure from the government on pricing and customer service, now is potentially the time for our UK utility brands to take a look to other markets to see how others have tackled this issue. Taking some of the lessons learned from the US market on customer service and communication could be a first step towards rebuilding trust in the sector.

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