Great service may still be the best way to build consumer trust but protecting people’s data is essential as we move towards a net zero world. That was the standout message from the latest meeting of the WNS Customer Trust Council.

Data can be “a huge scare” for companies, delegates at the autumn meeting of the WNS Customer Trust Council heard, “but if you offer a good level of customer service then the data always comes second”.

This was the consensus of energy and water leaders, who convened on a day when protestors were demonstrating nearby against climate change, and decarbonising the nation felt more urgent than ever.

Missed opportunity

Everyone agreed that used properly, data could enhance both customer service and trust – as well as support the nation’s push for net zero – so there was universal disappointment around the table that the smart meter rollout had resulted in so many missed opportunities.

One delegate commented: “I was so passionate and proud of what smart meters could bring but, as a customer at home during an install, was struck by just how transactional the experience was. Yet what a massive opportunity as an industry we have, to really advise, engage and support customers out there about what they can do to make a difference.”

“If you could go back to the drawing board you probably wouldn’t do it this way,” admitted another. “This is the first step into a smart energy future. Let’s hope the extra time [extended rollout deadline] enables suppliers to get that experience right for people.”

But the exasperation was clear, with one member saying: “The desperately frustrating thing about it all is that industry predicted it, but BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] pushed on anyway. Meters should be a really good experience for customers.”

Agreeing, another member said: “In terms of data, there has already been a huge opportunity missed here, and at what is a crucial time for net zero.”

Shout out

Many agreed that utilities were not doing enough to shout about their key role in that battle against climate change.

Getting closer to customers was the best way, they agreed, through understanding their data and offering a seamless service – albeit it was also imperative they get both these things right.

“No one area of trust exists in a vacuum,” warned another. “It’s irrelevant if your customers have a very high trust in their data privacy with you, if the next month they are screwed over on price. It’s impossible to think about things in silos.

“And I think there’s been a fixation on an isolated technology [SMETS], without understanding their value as part of a smart system. There seems no point in installing a whole load of meters if the only thing customers can do is slightly more accurately record their energy use each year.

“The other tragedy is that there is no pull factor in the system for us to be measuring when our customers are using their energy. And there’s no use knowing that information if you’re not going to act on it and reap rewards. We’ve got it the wrong way around – we should have got the system digital-ready.”

The need for a confluence of the right technology, the right structure and the right political will is clear, council agreed.

“The smartphone rollout showed how when you have a retail-led adoption of tech, it happens astonishingly fast,” said one delegate. “The problem is, the energy industry is a Soviet-style, centralised, command and control structure, where the customer is the last thing considered.

“Anything the customer does is behind the meter – which is such an industry-centric phrase, because from their perspective we’re behind the meter.

“And this is in a world where you are incentivised by the market to encourage the take-up of something by a customer, and your route to that is to build trust – because strong trust with your customer wins you market advantage.”

Another delegate added: “The other issue is that we haven’t mandated everyone. Your Soviet example is a good one, but under that scenario your customer would have no choice. What we’ve got is a bizarre hybrid.”

And there is another flaw, said a fellow member: “Because it’s not mandated, when one customer goes off supply a network might not know if it is just that customer, or the whole street.”

Comforting message

Reassuring customers that the more a utility knows about their data, the better, poses challenges. And inter-industry sharing isn’t easy. “Post-GDPR implementation, we tried to share information on vulnerable customers with another utility and immediately got a rejection, as it couldn’t accept the data without customer consent – despite us trying to prioritise people in the event of an outage. It’s like the licence obligation is in conflict with government guidelines.”

This, agreed some, is where a data catalogue with a consent portal, as recommended by the Energy Data Taskforce (EDT), could come in useful. But others remained concerned. “You can see it reaching a point where the customer thinks, hang on there’s 60 suppliers, 14 DNOs [distribution network operators] plus water. I’m not going to share my data.

“Particularly if it is sensitive.”

Meanwhile, others felt customers were becoming increasingly relaxed about relinquishing their data. “And the approach we take with all of our customers is by being highly transparent.”

Were there fears within industry that data-sharing could damage decades of trust, council was asked?

“Our trust is built less upon use of data and more about service. You have more opportunity to affect trust during that interaction, just as you have a lot more opportunities to lose trust in those interactions.”

An ongoing trust and data issue for one delegate was how the price of electricity was “invisible”. “It’s so complicated. It leaves the customer confused and disengaged.

“There’s a lot about all the potential excitement of data and how niche and granular you can go, which is great.

“But once you come back out to the customer, how are they going to see all that? And, at the moment, the pricing structure is just not set up for it.”

Happier times

Asked how far away utilities are from the happy equilibrium enjoyed by retail giants like Amazon, where the more they service customers, the happier they are to share their data, the council’s answer was a resounding: “Miles away”.

“But perhaps there’s a story to be made around decarbonisation,” suggested one. “Where utilities can move to create a sort of civic engagement, where customers feel a moral obligation to engage. Where getting to that happy equilibrium is something that gathers momentum. There has to be a compelling reason.”

Innovation stations

Is lack of data access holding back innovation for utilities, the roundtable was asked?

“Not completely,” said one delegate. “I think smart is changing customer interaction with us. In fact, it is increasingly virtual, with real interaction going down.

“But it’s difficult not to refer to the price cap, and how it effectively limits investment opportunities, certainly for larger players. But there’s people with far bigger reserves than us who can push the boundaries.”

“The major challenges on this for the energy industry are legacy IT systems,” voiced another. “Using tech platforms built around the existing paper billing functions of the big six. We need solutions built around CSX [customer service experience], trust and making the journey easy. And then in the future, interacting with this extremely smart system. That’s going to be the huge crunch point.”

Are outside agencies more likely to bring those solutions than industry, delegates were asked?

“It’s almost the other way around. We need to have the systems that can cope before you can start trying to gather data. It all needs to go into one place where you can interrogate it in multiple ways instantly.”

But giving up is not an option, said another. “We have an obligation to help customers and understand what the blockers are. There’s a big piece of work underpinned by data. But we need to give them advice, as the world’s going to be a different place and we need to help them navigate it.”

And are we running out of time?

“Well, there’s an awful a lot to do.”

Talking points:

• What are the potential value of metrics to reveal and prove trust levels within a utility and how are they being used to monitor performance and reassure customers?

• What are the hurdles to gaining or retaining customer trust on data and can industry work more together to build greater trust in the sector?

• How long will it take to reach a “happy equilibrium” where the more trusted a company is, the more customers will be happy to share their data?

• What do utilities need to do to make the most of the rapid changes and opportunities emerging in the customer experience landscape?

Insights from Darren Cornish

Darren Cornish, director of systems thinking and group customer strategy at Aviva UK, and formerly of Eon, shared his cross-sector experiences of consumer data and trust.

The trust agenda is a primary focus for Aviva, said consumer expert Darren Cornish, with data now a defining component. And its customer strategy includes both an operational approach and a strategic perspective.

Although formerly at Eon, Cornish said: “I come to this group not at all from a pious perspective. Earning public trust is as challenging for insurers as it is for utility businesses. And there wasn’t a single day in my five years with Eon when we didn’t attempt to improve trust.”

Trust opportunities

There now exist “massive opportunities for leadership across the utilities sector and financial services” in terms of trust, he said. “The public and consumers want to be with businesses that earn that trust. Interestingly, our research shows that the ‘entry ticket to the game’ is just delivering day in day out behind the products and services our customers buy from us – being reliable.

“So as well as evidencing we have our customers’ interests at heart and will do what they expect you to, we know that customers value stature and legacy – the fact we have been in business 324 years gives confidence that we will be here for them when it matters.”

Transparency progress

The public expect companies to be transparent. “All we do is sell a promise. A promise to pay a claim or to look after your investments and pension,” he said. Aviva has strived to lead the way on sharing information on data, such as claims payouts. “We pay out 98 per cent of claims, yet our research comes back consistently saying two in three of the public believe insurers avoid paying.

“You can shout as long as you like it’s not the case, and some aspects perhaps come through. But our view is trust is about actions not words, and we have to continue to evidence we can be trusted.”

Gauging sentiment

“We measure trust closely – surveying and benchmarking across the financial sectors – and also broader, with the public, customers and our intermediaries. So, we have three layers of understanding of how we’re performing in the trust space.”

And the company’s employee engagement programme now includes a strong focus on whether staff believe the company can be trusted from a customer perspective. “It’s a really interesting question. We now put a lot of store in whether our staff think there are some parts of our propositions that sit uncomfortably with them.

“There is a strong correlation between trust and how likely customers are to use us and stay with us.”

Data versus delivery

Keeping customer data safe, and using it appropriately, comes through consistently as the second-highest driver of trust, said Cornish. “Forty-seven per cent of customers say: ‘Get that wrong and you can forget us wanting to do business with you.’ Yet still, 50 per cent put this behind service – doing what you said you’d do is ranked even higher.

“We know if we don’t deliver against the promises we’ve made, it destabilises customer confidence, including around their data.”

Personal touch

With 400 data scientists across its group business, Aviva, just as the utilities sector, said Cornish, is treading a careful line between the benefits of using data in a more sophisticated way and what it can give to a personalised service that reduces customer effort.

“Customers tell us clearly they want us to put as little grit as possible into the experience and make it as low customer effort as possible. But getting the balance right is a very delicate judgement and we’ve tried to do this in a very overt way. We’ve had TV campaigns and a major internal education programme, so all our customer-­facing people understand what our data privacy standard is.

“It’s not just about managing the relationship; it’s about managing the root causes of disconnect with customers.”

Legacy issues

“Our biggest challenge, not dissimilar to utilities, is legacy platforms. We know poor quality underlying data erodes customer trust.

“For instance, we are constantly working on address mismatches, just within our UK data systems. We get 3,000 calls a month from customers who want our app but there is a disconnect between the back-end system and the details they are trying to register.

“Those are the realities, but I think we have got to a much more practical place.

“We have innovative and exciting initiatives in the big data space but we now have at least as much investment, effort and resource focused on data quality, so that we can show up in the right way for our customers.”

Insights from Jake Verma

Jake Verma, of Energy Systems Catapult and part of the Energy Data Taskforce (EDT) team, shared further details with the council on its recommendations for an integrated data and digital strategy, how they were being received by industry, and next steps.

As we move towards net zero there will be “many data-sharing opportunities and challenges”, said Energy Systems Catapult’s Jake Verma. And to enable an energy system that combines clean growth in keeping with the industrial strategy, it’s important to now start considering data as “infrastructure that we manage”, not an ancillary part of operations.

On EDT’s key recommendations:

• Energy needs

“To enable future flexibility markets, new data will need to come from the energy system and enable things such as scenario planning, and cost avoidance through smart reinforcement of networks.”

• Accessing advantage

“We know there is a lot of data out there but the way in which it is used is ‘a little dysfunctional’. To maximise its value, it needs to be discoverable and accessible. And not just within utilities, but for innovators and small companies.”

• Guiding principles

“The ‘presumed open principle’ is that data should be as open as possible. But the report’s recommendations around ‘data triage’ offer four key considerations which influence if data can be open, shared or closed. They look at whether it is commercial in nature; has privacy implications, could create negative consumer impact or has security issues.”

On EDT’s project recommendations:

• The data catalogue

“It’s not a data lake but more of an index, which lets industry understand what data is available. It could lead to the creation of new business models.”

• Co-ordinated asset registration strategy

“It enables the sector to understand what energy assets are out there and what infrastructure is needed to create future flexibility markets, or to get local areas to net zero.”

• Digital system map

“All utilities are exceptionally important in creating a national digital twin. In a matter of seconds, you could find out coverage, access to the transmission network, and planning rules to connect back to the grid.”

Report reaction:

“There has been a very positive reception to the report and discussions about the way data becomes infrastructure across utilities.

“We didn’t want to prescribe how industry gets to that stage. This is a call to action, for industry to start doing some small things, like publishing metadata to populate the data catalogue, so we can find out what data is already out there.”

Next stage:

• Collaboration

“The Energy Systems Catapult has recently won an award to develop data best practice guidance. We will be facilitating a number of collaborative workshops to test and develop what ‘good’ looks like.”

• Innovation

“Innovate UK is running a competition on modernising energy data access, which cites the EDT report as the foundation. This starts with three projects, which will be narrowed down until one supplier delivers an open source beta solution for industry.”

• Strategy

“Ofgem wants networks to include a digitalisation strategy as part of RIIO2. We may not know what that looks like, but Ofgem is clear it wants to help industry get to a digitalised future. So it will be a collaborative effort to find out what digitalisation looks like for utilities.”


“Some utilities have asked ‘who pays for this?’. But we’ve discovered utilities have a lot of data already, it’s about making it accessible. There is a marginal incremental cost in moving it from a computer underneath someone’s desk to accessible web services. Data is infrastructure, it’s a way to manage your estate in the same way you manage physical assets. That’s an investment key to the future of the energy networks, regardless.”

Customer and privacy impact:

“It is for you to look at your data and start making decisions about categorising it.

“Even with the presumed open principle, it’s absolutely fine not to publish where there are privacy issues. But there are system data maps which are very useful to share around operations, capacity, plant reinforcement.

“When it comes to a competitive marketplace for energy suppliers, we need to start making decisions, like how we can bring renewables on to the grid while protecting consumer privacy.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we are here to support, to move on to the next stage and help utilities discover what they need to do.”

WNS and Utility Week are now into their third year of working together on the WNS Customer Trust Council, a sector-wide forum focusing on trust, how it relates to pricing and customers, and sharing best practice and ways forward.

WNS offers a range of business process management solutions to utility and energy companies to build robust, smarter processes and reduce operational costs, resulting in transformational outcomes for clients.


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