The financial impact of the pandemic poses difficult questions and challenges to utility providers when considering how they will operate differently, and with increased sensitivity, as levels of customer debt rise. Citizens Advice estimates that more than 6 million people have already fallen behind on bills as a result of Covid-19 related issues.
It was against this backdrop that leaders in consumer service and debt management from energy and water companies were joined by regulatory experts for a virtual round-table discussion organised by Utility Week in association with Quadient.
Here are key messages from the event.
Utilities are well prepared
Utilities leaders taking part in the discussion highlighted a number of measures they were taking to deal with an expected number of their customers finding themselves in financial difficulties. These included setting up dedicated help lines, introducing payment holidays and providing extra training for staff to deal with the changing circumstances of customers.
Participants said that the expected rise in defaults had yet to materialise, which they put down to continuation of furlough schemes.
As another remarked: “When it began, we all panicked and expected the worst. But seven months in, it hasn’t turned out as we thought it was going to be. We’re not in bad place with debt collection and overdue debts.”
Other proactive measures included contacting customers for a health check call, rather a debt collection call. “That way, it was more of a discussion about what benefits they were expecting and whether they going on furlough. It helped us make sure we were speaking to the right people and having the right conversations – and not focusing on the debt they owed.”
However, what several noted they were now starting to see a change in behaviour, with more volatile and anxious calls.
Debt problems were more evident with business customers. “In some sectors, and particularly hospitality, with the stop-start cycle, many are not paying their rent or their utility bills – staff are their priority. This is where our biggest impact is going to be.”
A voice to talk to is essential – and technology is helping
A trend that emerged clearly during the discussion was how utility firms were putting in place measures to ensure vulnerable customers and those worried about getting into debt would be able to speak directly to someone.
To make this possible, firms said they were increasingly relying on automating routine transactions in order to free up staff time to prioritise those potentially in financial difficulties.
One energy company described how they were adapting as part of a new omni-channel rollout. “We used technology to increase our call handling ability, and put web chat in place or more self-service elements to cope with non-emergency calls but while still providing the right level of care handling and human contact.”
A participant from the customer services department in a water company, spoke of a similar strategy: “We have much more success in being able to digitalise our water calls than we do our waste water calls. Because if you have sewer flooding, you want to speak with somebody quickly.
“It’s very similar with debt: if you’ve got a real problem, you’re more inclined to speak with a human being.
“You can have all kind of omni channels but quite often speaking to a human being is the most important thing for customers who are having a really difficult time.”
Certainly, boosting the skills of those on-hand to help seemed to be a common response. One energy company described how it had set up a specialist support team, which brought together financial and affordability activities along with broader priority schemes, to make sure customers could access all of its services.
Another participant had not only put in place more training for staff but had also increased its web chat capabilities to deal with closed call centres and people were working from home. The point was also made that the changed working arrangement with staff working from home has made it possible to introduce shift working, so that customer conversations can take place outside of traditional 9-5 operations.
“We use the apps and we use SMS. We keep nudging people to use the most cost-effective method of payment. And one thing we’ve found during Covid is that the email traffic rose the most,” explained the same participant.
“You have to adapt your communication styles to suit your customers. That’s the key – we really must get that right,” he added.
There are problems with customer data
It was apparent from the discussion that utilities were trying to resource customer channels to deal proactively with the fall out of the pandemic, but it was acknowledged that their Achilles heel was the lack of customer data to enable them to segment and profile customers and be proactive in offering help. Work collating data in this way ended up being, as one participant put it, “Quite a manual process for our back-office staff.”
“Data quality is a major problem as is data in different places and not connected,” added another participant. “I think everyone struggles with data problems. I’d be reluctant to classify on our system that a customer is vulnerable – that presents all sorts of problems and I think it would help if we could connect better with government and other organisations.” Regulators had set out data plans for water and energy companies were due to start sharing information about those on the Priority Services Register this spring, but that was put back because of the complexities of the GDPR and legal issues.
Others expressed similar frustrations: “We don’t have all the customer data in the right place – and it makes the job just that bit harder. Our biggest challenge in water is there’s nothing to compel anybody to tell us they’re taking a service from us. We don’t know who’s in a property.
“But we’ve been doing a lot to understand what’s in our system and to establish if there is a high level of turnover in a property because that indicates transiency, and that can be a sign of vulnerability, and that we’re more likely to get a debt on that account.”
The need to reduce costs to serve
A constant challenge for all of our participants is pressure to reduce costs to serve while at the same time boosting customer service. It was agreed that bringing down costs to serve had to come from automating straightforward interactions, rather than under-servicing the vulnerable. “When dealing with your most vulnerable customers, there’s no cheap way of doing that. It’s what I call shoe leather – you actually need to be out there, working with third parties. Because whatever we say, our customers will be suspicious of us and our motivations as we’re a big organisation,” observed one participant.
She added: “We have to make the rest of the business really efficient to pay for this, which means we need to automate more and more in other areas.”
Utilities are embracing social media, two-way texts, and chatbots for more straightforward customer communication and engagement.
One participant described a recent business transformation: “Rather than doing what we used to do, which was sending out very expensive letters for everything we did and then converting that letter into emails, we’ve turned that off. And we’ve gone through a process of identifying what the communication is there to do. Is it for communication only? Is there a call for action within it? Is it just a notification? And that way, we’ve worked out a better cost to serve journey.
“So to contact a customer to say there’s a meter read at 9am, you can do that by SMS, rather than phone. It’s very cheap, easy to mass produce, and customers are happy to accept it.”
In terms of using live web chat, participants reported that with respect to serving customers well, it worked best if customers were asked to fill in basic information like name, address, account number, which allowed an agent to deal with three live chat conversations concurrently – “And really answer the questions and not have those big gaps in conversation.”
“Technology has been a really big help, but you’ve got to link that in with your data, you’ve got to understand the journey and prioritise which journeys need which channel approaches,” he added.
Customer journey mapping can help
A message from participants was that to understand how best to balance costs to serve while serving customers’ needs, it’s important to use customer journey mapping. This a process of creating a visual story of customers’ interactions with a company. It helps utilities gain insights into common customer pain points and how to improve those. It has evolved from the traditional whiteboard and post-it note approach which results in a static, one dimensional outcome to use technology to undertake this process. This results in a cross functional, dynamic view of all customer journeys which can feed in live data to keep pace with the ever evolving customer behaviour.
Said one participant: “We’ve covered 19 new journeys that cover all aspects of the customer’s approach in terms of the lifecycle. Our architecture is now ‘discover, buy, begin, help and reconsider’: they’re the different areas a customer can come in, we’ve built our journeys around these customer needs.
“And by actually understanding what our customers’ pain points are and where they need to have an actual conversation – “I can’t pay” being one of them – we’ve been able to prioritise those journeys and the one which has the biggest human interaction within it.
“And we’ve looked at where customer journeys can be self-served – which is what they’re used to in everyday shopping experiences.”
Customer Communications Management can help send the right messages
Tracking and managing customer communications in centralised systems has become essential as utility firms move to omnichannel engagement described by participant’s taking part in the round table.
“A Customer Communications Management (CCM) solution that provides a single source of the truth, yet enables true omni-channel communications management across print, email, SMS and web pages is absolutely key to the overall experience of both employees and customers alike,” he says
British Gas transforms customer journeys
Having already streamlined its communications and ensured they were personalised and relevant with Quadient Inspire, British Gas chose Quadient Customer Journey Mapping to begin the next steps on its journey to transforming the customer experience.
British Gas began by creating a new, cyclical, customer-experience lifecycle architecture that better reflects customers’ real-world journeys, rather than the journey that would best suit the needs of the business itself. It identified 23 key customer journeys to map, such as joining British Gas as a new customer; booking a visit from a home engineer; or reviewing and modifying current service offerings. By mapping these, British Gas could not only gain an understanding of the pain points that customers might face. It could also align existing communications to these lifecycle stages and journeys, thereby understanding common sub-journeys and ensuring customers would receive the communications they needed, when they needed them.
With the initial discovery work nearing completion, British Gas could then restructure the organisation into multi-disciplinary teams. This leads to breaking down existing silos between customer information, communications and journeys, increasing agility, and finding new ways to use their ever-increasing understanding of the customer journey.
One example of the benefits this brings is that the new understanding and consolidated data will prevent separate business units from acting without one another’s knowledge. In the past, this would potentially have led to a wave of communications directed at a single customer and ultimately confusion for both the customer and the business. Now, British Gas is able to identify where established business processes do not necessarily align with the ideal customer journey, and review these to ensure the customer still has the best possible experience.
British Gas will also be able to identify pain points where direct interaction will be needed to avoid losing a customer, and whether that interaction could be automated or human. As part of this, British Gas identified the need for new roles to help provide a human experience for certain journeys.
“Modern consumers are tech-savvy and expect seamless, online self-service options like those provided by digital businesses such as Netflix and Amazon. At the same time, they still want a personalised, in-person service over the phone when necessary,” explains Adam Firbank, Journey Practice Lead, Customer Communications.
“Trying to second-guess customer preferences would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, we can ensure that customers always have the exact support necessary, and can create new services based on our understanding of what the customer needs, not what we think they want,” he says.
Utility Week in Association with Quadient has produced an Insight Report Communications for the New Norm