Tim Pritchard, managing director of customer experience, Kantar Insights division Company strategy, Customers, Energy networks, Energy retail, Innovation, Skills, Strategy & management, Opinion, Citizens Advice, Pure Planet

“Service relies on understanding consumer preferences and providing a great experience across a variety of channels.”

The recent row between app-based energy provider Pure Planet and Citizens Advice has concentrated attention on what modern customer service means for utilities providers. The consumer charity marked down Pure Planet in its supplier ratings last month for failing to provide a customer telephone number, sparking debate about whether digital challenger brands ought to offer more traditional ways for customers to get in touch alongside apps and web platforms.

New operators like Pure Planet are pushing the energy industry to find different and improved ways to engage and update customers in what is seen by many as a crucial change to reflect our modern world. This is to be welcomed and businesses should keep up with changing consumer behaviour.

However, it’s important that this customer experience revolution is rooted in evidence. Energy businesses need to understand consumer preferences across age ranges, budgets and locations and develop a customer service offering that meets different needs. If not, they risk closing themselves off to a large part of the market.

Know thy customer

Disruptors have argued that their customers have already expressed a preference for online engagement by choosing them but it’s vital to test these assumptions. Suppliers will likely need to offer a range of channels to meet a variety of consumer needs.

Across industries, there is a growing preference among younger people for a self-serve style service, using digital tools like chatbots, online portals and FAQs to answer queries and perform basic account administrative tasks. We may reach a point in the future where this is the only model of engagement, but we’re not there yet. We typically see between one-fifth to a third of the public still expressing a desire to pick up the phone, whether to speak to their energy company or their bank.

This isn’t just the case for older buyers but can include people living in rural areas too where there are slower internet speeds. In the case of essential services like power connection, it’s usually when problems arise that many of us seek the reassurance and immediacy of a friendly human voice at the end of a telephone, no matter what our age.

The key is to understand these different scenarios and what matters most to people in communications terms. Having evidence of consumer trends and preferences will give providers the justification they need to invest in multiple engagement channels. It will also help regulators and consumer charities to develop robust performance metrics that mirror customer expectations.

Make it consistent

If you’ve decided to offer choice, the next step is for providers to ensure that customers have a consistently positive interaction no matter what channel they use. If you’re a disruptor then your online means of engagement need to be good, but you need to get the basics right too. Vice versa, traditional businesses must maintain pace with more digitally savvy operators.

Energy companies should recognise that there is still an opportunity to do things differently via non-digital channels. We’ve seen a sea change in this area in recent years as service providers across sectors realise the value of contact centre agents as ambassadors for their brand and invest in training for helpline operators. The tone of voice and easy-to-understand language that app-based businesses are often praised for can and should be reflected in telephone interactions too.

Evolving customer behaviour and new technologies are transforming the way we communicate and expect to be communicated with by businesses. The energy industry must keep pace, but while the drive to innovate and improve is to be applauded, providers should remember that innovation for its own sake rarely gets the best results. The route to good customer service is always to stick like glue to what consumers want, develop a customer experience strategy for providing this and then deliver it well.

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