Lloyd Buxton, director of energy, Thunderhead Company strategy, Customers, Electricity retail, Energy retail, Gas retail, Smart metering, Strategy & management, Opinion

"How do brands in the industry address the gap between what customers expect from them and what they actually deliver?"

If there is one thing that the utilities industry has taught us over the last decade, it is that any company striving to achieve a successful digital transformation must put the customer front and centre.

The power and utilities sector has been flipped on its head in recent years, with de-regulation, aggressive competition, smart technology and an increase in third-party service providers all contributing towards a visible surge in customer expectation.

This is nowhere better demonstrated than in a recent Uswitch Satisfaction Survey, which reveals that 9 out of 10 of the top brands in the utilities market are challenger brands. In fact, the top three – Octopus, Bulb and The Utility Warehouse – are all new entrants in this year’s chart. Only Scottish Power, from the big six, entered the top 10 this year. In addition, the likes of Eon and Npower all received low ratings in the recent Which? rankings for not offering value for money in relation to their service offering.

The truth is that, increasingly, today’s savvy and digitally empowered customer has come to expect the same level of service from their energy provider that they get from their mobile phone company, ISP or cable TV provider. And these recent surveys and rankings should be a wake-up call to all established players and a warning sign that needs to be addressed. Why? Customers aren’t afraid to voice their opinions and the success of these smaller, nimble start-ups shows that customers are looking elsewhere if they don’t feel they are being treated properly. Bad journeys equal churn; it’s the ‘natural’ customer journey that matters – as opposed to the pre-conceived business perception of what a journey ‘should’ be.

With that in mind, how do brands in the industry address the gap between what customers expect from them and what they actually deliver? Below we look at two areas of improvement for brands to consider, to meet their customers growing expectations, and shift the perception of themselves as a brand in the market.

1) Address the needs of the ‘engaged customer’

Creative technological disruption from the new entrants likes Octopus and Bulb is helping to address the gap between what customers expect from them and what utilities companies and brands actually deliver.

The presence of disruptive forces is also a key factor in creating the rise of the ‘engaged customer’ in the energy market, with customers being much more active and confident in this changing landscape

These educated, informed consumers want a great service and customer experience. They are less concerned with issues of reliability and affordability as they were in the past and the smaller, more nimble challenger brands are showing them an astute level of adaptability, altering their business model structure to better deal with this demand in both the technical and philosophical sense.

2) Focus on improving your customer’s level of trust

There are a number of key factors that influence a customer’s opinion of their utility provider. Call centre responsiveness and bill accuracy are both high on most people’s lists of must-haves, as is an overriding desire for trust between brand and customer.

Indeed, over half of those questioned in a survey of 10,000 UK residents said that they do not trust any energy supplier today, with two-fifths worried that they pay more for energy than they consume and a staggering third claiming to not even understand their energy bills.

This begs the question: how do energy companies work to improve this lack of consumer trust and get back to creating loyal, long-lasting relationships with their customers? Or, to put it more directly: how can they plan better for a consumer-centric future?

The smart meter rollout: An opportunity?

The roll out of over 53 million smart meters in over 30 million premises by the end of 2020 creates a huge opportunity for energy brands. We’ve seen brands using the data provided by the widespread roll-out of these new technologies, to improve the customer relationship.

The smart meters are, effectively a chance for energy brands to bridge the gap they’re experiencing in customer engagement, build stronger customer relationships, and lean into the Customer Switch Crisis. It is also a chance for energy brands to really monitor a new customer journey from the beginning and ensure needs and expectations are met throughout that course.

It is imperative, also, that energy brands, both old and new, put customers first during the rollout process. By identifying and understanding early adopters, acting on insights and ensuring the subsequent rollout is putting customers first, this is a natural opportunity for long-term customer engagement. A great customer experience is not only a possibility, following the nationwide rollout of smart meters, but an absolute necessity.

This particular case is a perfect example of an opportunity for the established players to take on the learnings of the new disruptor brands in the market and replicate the winning formula of injecting energy back into consistently improving customer engagement and the overall customer journey.

Moments like this mark the start of the market seeing a true shift from straight power delivery to customer empowerment. The ability to meet growing customer expectations will put the customer front and centre, productive change in the landscape will occur, and successful digital transformation will be evident.  A new age of customer-driven opportunity for the utilities industry is here and facilitating a positive customer journey throughout is part of it

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