Good customer service is essential when customers can share their opinions of energy suppliers without even making a complaint. Katey Pigden was among the delegates at our customer conference.

The failure of energy suppliers was a hot topic at this year’s Energy Customer Conference in Birmingham last month.

Several of the failed companies had been criticised for their poor customer service before they exited the market, and delegates were given an insight into how best to avoid such pitfalls.

Anthony Pygram, director of conduct and enforcement at Ofgem said the regulator’s supplier of last resort mechanism is there to protect consumers and is not an “insurance policy for dodgy business models”.

He also highlighted the way the industry is perceived by customers. He said a list of the top 50 companies ranked by customer service and published in July 2018 didn’t include any utility companies.

“If the service isn’t good it is increasingly easy for customers to share that experience – to tell the company things aren’t right and to tell other people,” he said.

Pygram shared some recent reviews of energy companies posted on consumer review site Trustpilot: “Grotesquely incompetent”, “appalling service”, “shocking – avoid at all costs”.

The writing is on the wall

Referring to the quarterly Citizens Advice star ratings table for energy suppliers, Pygram said: “We’ve seen a number of companies go out of business recently and quite often it’s the ones towards the bottom of the service quality spectrum.” He suggested companies focus on what they do when things go wrong.

He told companies to “act quickly” when it comes to complaints. “When dealing with complaints are you signposting customers to the Energy Ombudsman? Are you looking after the data of those people who trust you to provide a service to them?”

Tom Ward, utilities specialist and business development manager at Content Guru, explored the link between poor customer service and energy retailers going out of business and how technology can help improve the service suppliers offer.

“Customer service is becoming an increasingly important differentiator,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alex Prentice, sector lead at Huntswood, argued that energy companies should welcome complaints because they help “widen the pool of data” to ultimately improve services. Research from the consultancy firm revealed that 28 per cent of customers had lodged a complaint, but 35 per cent had reason to but didn’t complain. Of those, 34 per cent thought “nothing would happen”.

Michael Hill, complaint management expert at Resolver, told delegates there were several complaints about the recently failed energy suppliers before their demise. “Complaints were becoming increasingly complex and more often than not about customer service,” he said.

Customer trust

Greg Jackson, chief executive of Octopus Energy, talked about delivering fair pricing and value for consumers.

He suggested that pricing should not just be used to make sure vulnerable customers are protected. “High energy bills are a massive inducer of stress,” he said. “Energy bills have an impact on all customers’ lives.”

The CEO of the challenger brand highlighted the reality of higher prices and a lack of transparency and trust in energy retailers.

Meanwhile Matthew Vickers, chief executive of Ombudsman Services, said trust is about competence and character.

Paul Roberts, managing director of home energy at Engie UK and Ireland, explored ways to “revolutionise the customer experience”, but reminded delegates that customers “want the basics to be right”.

He said it is up to suppliers to demonstrate the value of new services.

Roberts pondered whether so many energy companies in the market is a good thing or not for customers. They want tailored tariffs, clarity of future costs and for energy companies to anticipate their needs.”

Referring to changes in the market such as the transition to EVs and smart metering, Roberts suggested it can be a “brilliant time” for a consumer or “downright confusing”.

Chris Brennan, head of digital value and propositions at Scottish Power, gave delegates an insight into the “digital customer journey”. “It’s the fastest-growing area in the company in terms of resource,” he said. Web chat is now the second most-used contact method by Scottish Power customers.

There are good and bad examples of customer service in energy, but it seems companies still have a way to go if they want to improve the way they are perceived by customers and become a success story.

John Hutchins, head of smarter living, EDF Energy Blue Lab

“Most people have their pride they don’t want to be known as vulnerable people.”

Lord Larry Whitty, chair of the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances

“The level of empathy is dramatically different between companies and within companies for customers who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances.”

Nicola Eaton Sawford, conference chair and managing director, Customer Whisperers

“You set your bar lower than anyone else does.”

Michael Hill, complaint management expert at Resolver

“A 10 per cent increase in customer satisfaction delivers a 13 per cent increase in customer loyalty”

Alice Brett, senior policy manager, Citizens Advice

“People just want to know do I owe you money or do you owe me.”

Yiango Mavrocostanti, innovation and low carbon networks engineer, Western Power Distribution

“We are making customers part of the way we run the network.”

Bait and switch

Talking about the behaviour of energy companies, Greg Jackson, chief executive of Octopus Energy, said some have been “luring customers in” on low fixed prices and then “hiking them as quick as they can”.

To demonstrate his point, he showed a video of customers being enticed into a bar with flyers and posters shouting about drinks costing £3, only for them to suddenly be charged significantly more.

Customers complained that they felt misled and it wasn’t the right thing to do. The same goes for the energy industry, he suggested.

“Trust is undermined when firms behave in this way,” Jackson said. He argued that transparency and being completely open with customers is key.

“Building trust can make energy companies the positive force we want them to be.”

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