Customers who deal with their service providers digitally are more likely to be happy customers. Ben Carter says that now is the time to evaluate your company’s digital communications strategy.

Customers expect to reach their service providers 24/7 – across multiple platforms – and they expect a prompt, insightful response. Not only that, nearly three-quarters of UK customers say it’s critical that contact centre agents know their service history so they can save time, according to a survey by Salesforce.

The utilities sector faces further pressure from regulators, which also want the industry to be more responsive.

Take recent events in the UK power market. As part of its 2015-23 price controls, Ofgem incentivised electricity distribution network operators (DNOs) to engage effectively with larger customers – such as housing developers – that are seeking new connections to the grid. Ofgem said in August 2017 that electricity DNOs must meet minimum expectations – by providing customers with progress updates on new connections, for example – or they could face revenue penalties.

In the water market, there’s a similar regulatory focus on ensuring that service providers are responsive to customers. Indeed, Ofwat recently confirmed that delivering better customer service is one of its main ambitions for the 2019 price review.

So investment in real-time customer communications is fast becoming a must for utility companies.

Initally, to reduce the number of enquiries and customer complaints, the focus should be on clearer outbound communication, including texts and notifications by email and social media. With real-time customer communications, utility companies can:

  • Build customer trust and earn a reputation for integrity by providing proactive advice on what to do through, for example, the 105 service.
  • Manage customer expectations or even exceed them by giving advance notice of planned supply interruptions. This will allow customers to plan ahead rather than being caught out by essential maintenance work.
  • Ensure a frictionless experience and turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one with frequent updates on resolution windows. This will reduce the time and effort consumers spend chasing providers for progress reports.
  • Make the situation understandable and deliver a more customer-centric service by clearly explaining the reasoning for service interruptions or degradation.

It is important to keep in mind what you are trying to achieve, and how the overall ease of doing business with your company can strengthen customer loyalty.

Digital communications providers are in a different industry, with different challenges to those being faced by utilities. However, over the past three decades, we have worked to meet the needs of our customers and improve our service, while maintaining and upgrading a large estate of assets in the field. We’ve also dealt with regulatory changes, and worked to make the most of changes in technology. As a result, we have some reflections to share.

Rome was not built in a day

Rarely are we in a position to rip out and replace legacy systems. Therefore, look to develop a strategy that’s flexible enough to accommodate the changing needs of your customers. You could check to see if you are taking full advantage of new technology that bolts on to your existing contact centre, for example. Will it enable you to aggregate information, provide data-driven insight, and ultimately allow you to make proactive decisions or even provide proactive notifications to customers?

Top tip Making better use of your existing technology and looking at how employees use it can make all the difference to enhancing how your business operates.

Be ready for digital interactions

Even if most of your customers are contacting you by phone, it’s worth providing digital options. Ofwat’s latest service incentive mechanism (SIM) survey shows online customer contact is scored significantly higher than interaction by other means, including the phone. In the energy sector, 68 per cent of digital users are more satisfied with their energy provider, according to Accenture research cited by Vodafone.

The number of digital interactions is likely to increase, and digital customers are happier customers. What is your digital strategy?
Vodafone research shows 93 per cent of IT directors have a digital strategy, but 85 per cent of those surveyed felt their connectivity networks were not ready to implement it. The “digital payback” in customer satisfaction indicates this marginal area today will be a differentiator in the future.

Top tip As you develop your digital strategy, don’t neglect your underlying connectivity platform – fixed or mobile.

Be open to digital innovation

For many companies, the thought of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) may be daunting, but these kinds of innovations are set to become more common. For example, Juniper Research estimates that the use of AI-powered virtual customer assistants will soar by 1,000 per cent by 2020.

AI can help you respond to customer queries more quickly and efficiently, and reduce inbound voice calls. After all, when customers call contact centres, it’s usually because of an issue that can be dealt with relatively quickly – they’ve forgotten their account password, or they have a straightforward task to do, like change their address.

Top tip To make the most of new technology like AI, work with experienced partners and learn how to enhance client interaction.

Our experience has shown that real-time customer communications can make a big difference. The key is to plan interactions ahead of time that will please clients, even in sensitive or time-constrained situations.

The future of customer service is digital. The time to get ready is now.