There’s no “new normal” yet for customer behaviours or engagement trends following lockdown-induced transformations on both fronts. The limbo is keeping customer experience leaders in the utilities sector on their toes, Jane Gray reports.

The UK’s period of national lockdown triggered some major shifts in customer behaviour, creating a surge in usage of digital and self-serve channels, dips in phone traffic and spikes in meter reading submissions.

By and large, utilities responded to these changes with agility, sustaining and sometimes even improving customer satisfaction levels while shifting contact centres into distributed set-ups with most agents working from home. As the pandemic wears on however, how are these transformations playing out? And how are they impacting the strategies and priorities of customer experience leaders in the sector? These were the foremost questions for a group of senior industry representatives at a recent Utility Week virtual debate, hosted in association with Bold 360 by LogMeIn.

Addressing the developing picture for customer contact channel preferences first, the group found a broadly shared experience in continued volatility, with channel volumes failing to settle into clear patterns. While a general uplift in digital and self-serve options does seem to be enduring, phone contact levels have picked up again to something approaching pre-lockdown levels, and several participants agreed that there can be significant day-to-day variances in contact channel volumes.

The upshot of this lack of predictability has been a need for continued agility in contact centre resourcing and a growing consensus around the need for multi-skilled agents who can effectively handle service queries across many different channels as demand requires.

In this environment, email correspondence has become something of a “problem channel” from a customer experience and efficiency perspective. Enduring upticks of around 20 per cent for email traffic were common to most participants, and while communication over this channel is relatively attractive for home-based employees due to its “asynchronous” nature, it can also become labour intensive and high cost to service.

Several participants agreed that they have become increasingly aware of effective email correspondence as a high value skill in among their agents and also increasingly sensitive to the inefficiencies created by staff becoming entangled in long email exchanges with customers which, especially in an email context, tend to bring more complicated queries with several different service elements, to the table.

Indeed, a generally increasing environment of anxiety for all customers seems to be driving an overall uplift in contact. At one energy retailer in particular, this increasing demand on contact centre has been pronounced.

“Email is currently up about 20 per cent and chat at a similar level compared to what we would expect,” said the CX director. “We’re facing quite a tough service challenge because our underlying base is contacting us more, plus we’ve acquired a lot more customers recently, so nothing is really settling for us at the moment.”

Contact centres and customers under pressure

Amid all this volatility however, all our participants agreed that recent months have seen a steady rise in the number of contacts relating to affordability issues and there was a very clear expectation that this upward trend will continue into the winter, which all agreed looks set to introduce unprecedented strain on staff working on the front line of customer experience.

This is causing some worry about how to sustain agent morale – especially for those working at home – and also driving increased interest in the role that bespoke digital solutions to help customers facing financial hardship or other forms of vulnerability, can play in easing the burden on contact centres.

Taking the staff morale issue first, one water company representative observed: “Taking back-to-back calls from customers who are broadly unhappy is taxing, yet agents [working from home] have no colleagues to vent to for a minute before prepping for the next call. As a result, we’re starting to see some of our voice scores decline – some of that passion for really delivering is difficult to achieve at home.”

To further complicate this challenge, the increased pressure on contact centres means leaders are finding it difficult to find time to take agents out of service for periods of training and development. As a consequence, there appears to be a general shift in favour of “bite-sized” training and the generation of support tools which will guide agents through scenarios using narration over the top of simulated tasks. There has been a concerted effort across the board too, to ensure “knowledge articles” and process information are all accurate and accessible.

Making sure agents have all the right information and skills will go some way to ensuring they feel supported an increasingly tough customer experience environment, hoped our participants. But it can only go so far and leaders were keen to share ideas and experiences on alternative routes to servicing an increasing volume of anxious and probably high-maintenance customers.

One water company representative reflected: “Some people are facing hardship for the first time and they don’t know what to do or how to seek help and support, which is a very different conversation to have versus somebody who has been in hardship for a period of time. There is a question around how we navigate customers’ uncertainty, particularly with people who don’t realize they need help and support”

The work of one energy retailer to create an app which helps pre-pay customers put aside money now to mitigate the impact of winter fuel needs was of particular interest too all participants grappling with how to support customers more effectively, mitigate contact centre strain and head-off significant increases in bad debt.

The retailer’s representative at the event said it was a solution they had tried to push previously however it has now “taken off because customers need to use it”. More generally, the same participant, whose organisation had also had success with the rollout of an app for making “emergency credit” applications” observed that digital options can be extremely helpful in “taking the embarrassment” out of potentially awkward conversations for customers.

This was a concept which very much resonated with the wider group, with several participants commenting on the increasing evidence to show that a traditional assumption that people experiencing vulnerability or sensitive issue want to talk to a person is not necessarily true. They were keen to explore how digital channels could increasingly be used to provide “empathetic experiences” in difficult situations.

Providing a counterpoint to the rather downbeat conversation about how to respond to increasing customer hardship and vulnerability, there was also a more positive consensus shared by event participants on the legacy of lockdown for consumer awareness and engagement in their consumption.

Across the board, our CX leaders said lockdown caused a high spike in the submission of meter reads by customers. While this has dropped off somewhat since formal nationwide lockdown measures came to an end, submissions are still significantly up on their previous levels. Our CX leaders took this development as a positive contribution towards their ambitions to help customers consumer energy and water in more sustainable ways.

Uncertain outlook for CX investment

As the debate drew to a close, participants were asked to reflect on the strategic standing of the customer experience function in utilities and whether they felt the increased focus it had received during lockdown would endure.

While there was a resounding response from many participants that they felt the legacy of lockdown for the customer experience function would be one of increased strategic significance, this was strongly tempered with observations from two CX leaders.

These more cautious participants observed that firstly, with customer behaviours still volatile, it is difficult for companies to develop a long-term post-Covid investment plan for enhanced customer experience. And meanwhile, with the full force of an unprecedented recession looming, there was a fear from one leader in particular that “when the chips are down, investment in customer experience will be among the first things to be cut”.

Have we simply managed another ‘peak’ well, or is business transformed for the future?

Comment by Lloyd Buxton, utilities sector lead, Bold360 by LogMeIn

This was the third event in a series of lockdown themed forums which started in April as we all rallied to understand and share the lessons from lockdown. Fast-forward six months and CX and service leaders have their work cut out for them managing volatility in volumes, shifting staff to work from home, and trying to keep the lights on and the metrics green.

Most have performed admirably, with digital channels providing much-needed resilience alongside brilliant people going above and beyond. Impressive digital performance metrics have been noticed by the board and senior executives – and they want to see more.

For the first time in a long time, CX leaders have found greater support from all areas of the business in advancing CX-focused projects as every part of the business comes together to tackle one big challenge.

The types of projects that have been accelerated are things like: deploying self-service options into the app; deflecting from the IVR [interactive voice response] channel to chat; and improving routing with better intent recognition. While each has delivered significant benefits, they are the first steps in a (now) higher stakes digital and CX improvement roadmap. Or as one CX director put it: “We have a lot of plasters in place.”

CX leaders are all too aware of this, and are keen to seize the momentum to transform their businesses for the future. We heard from one CX director that “8 per cent of contacts in the contact centre are from failed self-service journeys”. Another remarked that “traditional channels [phone] are now being used for more complex queries”, increasing handing time and cost to serve.

It’s clear that utilities are fast adopting new metrics to become more data-driven in their decision making. We’re starting to see things like high-level self-service scores be challenged more often, alongside customer journeys and pain points being analysed with more business user-friendly dashboards, using algorithms to find the “needle in the haystack”, which can be easily quantified and turned into a significant improvement opportunity.

Re-platforming during a pandemic is off the table, so utilities are seeking more agile technology partners with faster time to value and more rapid adoption and deployment models. It’s a tough ask, with a complex tech vendor landscape promising much. Look for the breadth and depth of likewise deployments which you can try and test yourself, versus one-off marquee case studies three years out of date.

We look forward to the next event in this series, which takes the form of a webinar on 6 November. The legacy of lockdown is still forming, I hope you can join us to help shape the next phase.

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