From shifting large numbers of staff to home working to accelerating the use of digital communication channels, the utilities sector has been widely praised for its response to the issues thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet with millions of people placed on furlough or finding themselves out of work completely, vulnerability has struck people who could never have previously imagined they’d be forced to seek financial help. Utilities have had to adapt their strategies quickly but the focus is now on the long-term picture and how the sector can enable customers to engage more, as well as ensuring the consumer experience keeps pace with changing needs.

With a wide-range of, often complex customer needs to meet, ensuring the right communications channels are available has become a key challenge.

During the first day of Utility Week Live Summit, sponsored by Capita, several industry experts joined a panel session followed by a workshop titled Transforming customer service post-pandemic. Opening the afternoon’s talks Jo Causon, chief executive at The Institute of Customer Service, perhaps summarised it best when she outlined how Covid was an opportunity for organisations to pause and reflect on what their experiences mean for customers going forward.

She said: “There’s a really important opportunity for us as organisations to press pause and to really reflect on what has gone well and therefore what do we want to continue to do, what should we stop doing and what maybe should we start doing as we enter the next phase.”

She highlighted how the mode of working for utilities had changed. The shift to home working, out of necessity, happened almost overnight for vast swathes of the population. Going forward industries are recognising that the future of working will be a hybrid model of office and remote working and Causon believes this flexibility can work well for both utilities and their customers.

She said: “A move to hybrid working is probably the number one topic at the moment that I am hearing spoken about across pretty much every sector. Not so much about wanting to move to it, because I think the future world is about living in hybrid, but how do we make that work? Particularly, how do we make that work well for customers?”

Ensuring utilities make it easier for customers to communicate with them was a key area of concern for the delegates. This has become more apparent over the course of the pandemic as a huge increase in demand makes the need for a robust, omni-channel communications approach ever more clear.

Throughout the past year utilities have reported seeing more customers use alternative communications channels to contact their suppliers. In the case of Ovo Energy, the supplier brought forward plans to introduce its webchat service in May last year in response to the increased demand.

Ovo’s data director Katie Russell explained how the company sees technology as key to providing the right customer service.

She said: “In particular we need to be able to prioritse customer experience and customer trust, and customer demands are changing really rapidly. It’s a technology imperative to be able to really adapt the way in which we interact with our members and also respect the multiple different channels and touchpoints too which they may choose to interact and engage with us.”

Similarly Andy Eadle, Shell Energy Retail’s customer service director, said while the company’s telephony channels remain the most popular, the number of users has decreased while email communications and live chats increased.

During an interview with Rob Waller, principal strategic solution consultant, EMEA at Zendesk, Eadle said: “I think as people have had to juggle more in their lives with things like home schooling, the time to engage in a phone call has maybe not been quite there for people.”

This shift has meant the company has had to ensure the right training for its employees who require different skillsets for different channels is available.

He further explained: “As things have shifted it’s been crucial that we have been there and responsive to our customers but then also on top of that being able to provide the level of service that customers want and need from us.”

However during the afternoon it became apparent that this move to digital is not for everyone and there is a strong need to strike the right balance with any approach to communications (see ‘Solutions’ below).

Elsewhere, in the water sector, using data to identify customers at risk of entering financial difficulties and intervening beforehand has been key for United Utilities. Louise Beardmore, the company’s customer service and people director, highlighted the challenges of working in the North West where high levels of deprivation have seen Covid hit consumers harder than in many other areas across the UK.

Utilising data, United Utilities issued targeted messaging to customers who had potentially been hit by furlough based on the industries they worked in. It also encouraged those in receipt of benefits to get in touch if they are struggling due to Covid.

“But it’s not one size fits all and it’s how we are using data and analytics and its indicative signs to make sure we can get that help and support to where it’s needed most,” she said.

Solutions

Following the industry presentations the summit attendees convened into a workshop which aimed to further understand the changes to consumer behaviour and their impact on requirements.

One participant suggested communication is a “two-way thing” and that there is an issue of not enough communication coming back from customers. As a solution to address this, they suggested utilities should be more proactive with providing information about the work they are doing in their local area.

They said: “If we start to tell them things that are going on that we know about on the network then I think they are more likely to respond and feel positive that if they tell us that there’s service problems they are not just speaking to a black hole and they understand that their information is valuable.

“I think also if we can engage them a little more operationally they are more likely to engage with us as utilities strategically as well because they feel like they have a stake in it. I think it starts by putting information out there and then we get more back.”

The idea of proactive communications was positively received by another delegate, yet they cautioned there must be an “opt-in” solution for customers, as some groups will have different communication preferences to others.

They said: “I’d be inclined to say that on the idea of going out to customers and keeping them updated and making that proactive contact, I think that’s a good thing in certain situations. But I think there are groups of customers where some will really like that, some really won’t. So I think there should be an opt-in for how much you want to hear about.”

Additionally, they argued, there must be differentiation in the types of communication from general updates to news about work that will directly affect a consumer.

Lessons from Covid

During the workshop the impact of Covid on communications was assessed, with delegates giving their perspectives of what they had seen and potential lessons learned from the pandemic. One participant suggested that in some ways communication has improved over the past year.

“Just look at this conference, there’s more of us probably talking and getting to know each other a little bit than would have happened at a physical conference in many ways, where you tend to meet people you already know. So perhaps with communication between utilities and customers, if we can make it easier to do it digitally, then there is quite a large proportion of customers that will maybe take that up and feel that they can get to know us a little bit.”

One representative from the energy sector said their company had seen an acceleration in customers using the company’s app.

“There’s obviously been a considerable uptake of people downloading it so the communication can be quicker to the person, to their phone in their hands, like push notifications for example, than other ways,” they said.

Another talked about how their company switched their customer research forum, usually held in person, to a virtual event. The results of this meant the forum became more accessible, with people who were ill able to attend the online event as well as a member who was on maternity leave with a young child. Going forward, they added, these forums will be held both physically and virtually to ensure maximum engagement.

“From a research engagement side it just opens it up to more people,” they said.

Furthermore, it was suggested utilities must know their audience and understand that each customer will have specific communication needs and preferences. One attendee posed the question of whether utilities knew which journeys were suitable for their own customers, whether they prefer quick digital interactions or more dedicated, personalised services.

Another admitted they did not and do not have the systems to capture that information, but added that they are working towards that goal.

“The vision that I have is that it’s a choice but it’s easy. So whatever you want, if you want a live chat till 6pm or pick up the phone, we are an essential service so it has to be easy to get that phone number if you’ve got a problem,” they said.

Physical contact?

While much of the focus on customer engagement is ensuring the right telephone, email and webchat options are available for customers, the idea of having a physical presence in the community was also discussed during the session.

One delegate explained how their energy company had “bricks and mortar” community hubs in certain areas to offer advice to their customers. While this has not been possible due to social distancing measures, it was seen as a valuable asset before the pandemic.

They said: “We open community hubs as well, where we have got shops, bricks and mortar places, where customers can go in. Not to make a profit, but just to be there for the community and answer questions about their energy. Enable those people to engage with us, teach them about the digital journey, but also its in areas where we have more vulnerable customers. They can come in, speak to someone and be reassured.”

While, perhaps understandably, the emphasis during the debate was on communications solutions, one delegate suggested that the real answer is for issues to be dealt with before they become a problem.

“Perhaps the actual thing that we should be looking at is making sure that those issues don’t exist and finding a way to stop that,” they said.

Throughout the past year coronavirus has meant that businesses the world over have been forced to rapidly adopt new ways of working and the UK utilities sector is no exception. Almost overnight, the sector rallied to protect its most vulnerable consumers and this led to an increase in digital communications channels.

While the pace of change has been rapid, it’s clear from the discussions at Utility Week Live Summit that the sector must understand the varying needs of its customer base and offer the full range of tools at its disposal to promote meaningful consumer engagement. New channels are necessary and welcome, but the sector must not completely disregard the old ways entirely.

What to read next