How do you boost customer ratings while halving the cost of servicing customers? In the second of a series of case studies on customer engagement, Hilary Bennett, head of customer contact at Severn Trent, lets Denise Chevin into a few secrets.

At a time when the focus is on finalising PR19 determinations and moving into the next asset management plan period, AMP7, it can be all too easy to forget just how water company operations have moved on in this spending period.

Not so, however, at Severn Trent, where digital transformation of customer engagement has delivered impressive results for business efficiency and customer satisfaction.

“If you think about where we started from in this regulatory period, we were mainly telephony or white mail,” reflects Hilary Bennett, head of customer contact. “That is how customers interacted with us five years ago. They either called us or they wrote to us. We did have email as a channel, but it was very under-utilised.

“Today, we are going to end AMP6 in a much more digital environment – after going through a huge amount of transformation based on listening to and understanding our customers’ and how they want to interact with us.

“We are now open 24/7, 365 days a year, the first water company to do so. We have a much higher digital presence than we had before, on all social channels, for example. And in our 24/7 centre we’ve multi-skilled some of our night shift in that centre to be able to deal with queries either over the phone or via webchat.”

Geographic spread

Severn Trent is the second-largest water business in England and Wales, serving eight million customers in diverse areas from Birmingham and Leicester to rural locations in the Peak District.

Thanks to its digital transformation, 1.8 million customers are now registered on web self-service, almost half of its 4.3 million customer connections. So far this year, £59 million has been processed through payment functions, and more than 855,000 transactions have been completed. “That’s 855,000 fewer contacts into our contact centre,” says Bennett.

Customer interaction is enabled across a whole range of channels – Facebook, ­Instagram, Twitter, telephony, webchat, email or text. Text is particularly useful, says Bennett, in situations where customers are at work and want to be kept informed if there has been a problem with their water supply, for example, and when it has been fixed.

“More customers are choosing to communicate through our digital channels,” she says, “and we’ve seen a 39 per cent growth in demand for webchat. In the past year Twitter followers have gone up by almost 20 per cent and there’s been a 600 per cent increase in Facebook posts. These are directed to the website, which is greatly contributing to 94 per cent of our contacts via web self-service now being resolved at first point of contact.”

Technical upgrades have come in various forms, and include a new omni-channel software platform that helps Severn Trent better prioritise incoming contacts and case-manage customers. “We can also pick up on trends and join conversations proactively. This is a new platform used by companies such as Amazon, Nike, Disney, putting us right up there with the major brands,” Bennett explains.

A new website allows customers to make adjustments to suit their needs, such as increasing the font size if they are visually impaired, or changing to another language. A further attractive feature to encourage self-service is a function that allows customers to go online and make a payment quickly – without having to log in – and securely enough that the right details are gathered and the right account paid.

Customer satisfaction

The results are impressive. The C-SAT (a measure of customer satisfaction) target has been achieved, hitting 4.85, and cost per contact has reduced by 50 per cent. During this past five-year AMP period, AMP6, headcount has fallen by a fifth to 900 as people leave or retire without being replaced. Bennett expects the staff downsizing to continue naturally in the coming years.

She says: “I absolutely want to make sure we offer fantastic service, but at a very cost-effective price, because we have the lowest bills in the land and we are determined to keep it that way.”

The regulator clearly believes it can. Severn Trent was one of only three companies that went straight into fast track, based on its original PR19 business plan submissions, and like all water companies is under pressure to reduce costs. But despite these pressures, Bennett says Severn Trent will always support those who prefer the phone, which currently still represents half of its customer contact.

“I’ve worked in retail operations the whole of my career and I don’t think we’ll ever see the death of the contact centre,” she observes, even as AI-based virtual assistants become more sophisticated in the future.

Bennett is keen to emphasise that the direction of travel for harnessing new technologies has to be led by customer choice. Before adopting new contact mediums the company trials them first. A current trial, for example, involves a more efficient approach to dealing with calls about water leakage.

“If a customer calls to report a leak, instead of them trying to explain the situation, we can say: ‘If you have your smart phone with you, would you like us to support you by looking at the problem with you?’.

“Previously, somebody has called in and said: ‘I can see this water on the road’, and we’ve tried to establish whether it is a leak from one of our pipes or if it is surface water, so this way we can establish who we need to send out to deal with the problem. Before, you would’ve had to send a trained technician out to look at that problem.

“With this methodology we have a trained technician in the operational centre, talking to the customer, and the customer’s smartphone is literally showing them what the problem is. So it’s quicker, both for the customer getting their problem resolved, and for us getting the right crew out.”

Bennett says the new approach was originally trialled in the 24/7 operational contact centre. Customers liked it and over the past 12 months it has been expanded more widely.

Q&A: Hilary Bennett, Severn Trent

Talk us through your customer service function

Our customer contact is split into five key delivery functions. We have our customer operations service centre, which is our 24/7 centre, 365 days a year. That deals with water and waste issues and is based at our head office in Coventry.

Then we have our customer hubs, which handle mainly billing enquiries. They are in Derby and Shelton (Shrewsbury). In those hubs, and in our operational contact centre, we take all of the customer contact for both Severn Trent and the Welsh arm of our business, Hafren Dyfrdwy.

Then we have our metering services team, which includes all our meter readers and billing enquiry teams, who are out and about going through any billing enquiry issues with people, advising them on water efficiency, looking for their stop tap.

We also have office teams who support those three functions. If we’re not able to handle it at point of contact, we’ve got back office teams who support the 24/7 operational centre, the billing enquiry team, and our metering services teams.

And then I have a customer contact strategy team, which focuses on our retail and digital strategies looking forward to our customers’ longer term needs, along with our complaint and service recovery handling team. So, if our customers experience any problems we have dedicated teams to support more complex issues.

All of these teams are based within those three sites – either at Coventry, Pride Park in Derby, or in Shelton. We then have a back-office team for Hafren Dyfrdwy in Wrexham who support our non-household Welsh customers.

You mention the 24/7 team is multi-skilled – is that the case with agents generally?

What I don’t want is a jack of all trades and a master of none, so there’s a balance. Normally, 80 per cent of the transactions that come in will be dealt with by a skilled person in that area. But we do need flexibility if there is, say, a water incident and you need more people to help. So, 20 per cent of our billing staff are multi-skilled to support other areas of the business, and vice versa.

We also have a dedicated webchat team and a dedicated social team, rather than everyone working across all channels. However, that doesn’t mean that if it’s really busy on phone contacts, that they weren’t able to shift and take a query on that.

So we have flexibility, which allows us to keep costs down.

Do you use robots on webchat?

Yes, we’ve just launched Juno and we’re the first water company to launch this type of service, and we know this will make a huge difference, as our customers can essentially get what they need quickly and efficiently. We know there’s times when we can get a bit busier than usual, so if our customers can use Juno and get what they need when they need it, it’s great for them.

It also means that our call agents will have more time to answer the more difficult, tricky queries we get where customers absolutely have to chat to someone. In terms of the upfront bit, we would use a robot to make sure we’re talking to the account holder. But we don’t have robots handling the entire webchat – that needs human interaction.

Do you use customer journey mapping to help improve service?

We’ve done customer mapping throughout this AMP. What we’ve done is looked at where the touch points are, and how they’ve changed as we’ve introduced new channels. We need to review our customer journeys as customers adopt new channels.

We look at channel-by-channel performance reporting. How many customers come in one webchat? How many come in on a social channel such as Twitter? How many through telephony and what are the touch points?

If you came in through web self-serve and started your journey there, but you ran into a problem that you couldn’t do online, I would track through data on our website to see where you drop out of that journey. We track performance weekly and spot customer trends.

The performance data is automatically generated by our software, which has been built and developed by our in-house teams, our technology teams and our customer journey teams. We’ve developed that in house, to enable us to look at customer trends.

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