Market view: Service is the secret of success

Customer service isn’t about keeping the water regulator happy with a decent SIM score, but treating it as a whole-business priority to get ahead of the competition, says Simon Thorpe.

With companies fighting to avoid hefty penalties from the regulator, as well as preparing for the open market in 2017, it’s imperative that customer experience is top of the corporate agenda. While service incentive mechanism (SIM)scores offer a useful overview of customer service performance, the limited data sampling and infrequent measurement involved add up to a lost opportunity to gain competitive advantage.

What do you want to achieve?

We know that Ofwat regulation means water companies fine-tune their customer service to pass the SIM exam question. But what if organisations took a step back and looked at the true value to the overall business of delivering exceptional service? Other sectors have been doing this for years and can now find direct correlations between service and profitability. But before starting to analyse customer experience, there are a number of questions to answer. What do you actually want to discover? Are you in a place to react and resolve issues? And how will this insight inform your strategic objectives?

Feedback and culture

One of the challenges with the SIM approach is the relatively low sample size capturing only a moment in time. What this snapshot technique won’t unlock is the continued success or failure of the company’s service provision, or ongoing issues that keep impacting the customer. For companies wishing to stay ahead, a more consistent approach is required to collect real-time, actionable feedback at each part of the customer journey.

Gathering feedback at individual agent level can drive behaviour and provide coaching insights, while thousands of surveys are accumulated on a monthly basis for the business to analyse and identify trends. We recommend collecting a minimum of 20 surveys per operative per month, which is a robust amount of data to continuously deliver external 360-degree feedback to the frontline.

It’s not easy to get everyone in the organisation on board, but for a company to become best in breed, a shift in culture is required. It’s vital to consider each part of the customer journey and how service is offered each time they come into contact with the company. While service is a core mindset in the contact centre, its culture of considering the customer first does not typically extend to other departments.

For example, most repair teams are measured on job effectiveness: how quickly the work was completed and whether it was fixed first time. These are sound measurements, but what’s missing is the impact those repair teams can have on the customer experience. Training and targeting these frontline operatives in delivering superior customer experience is a sure-fire tool for reducing customer churn.

Kier customer services director Ben Bax understands the cultural challenges companies face. He says: “Some businesses are still making the mistake of seeing the contact centre as the customer service department. In truth, for a water business, the service the customer is paying for is when they turn on their taps and when they flush the loo. The operational staff – those in vans – provide a huge part of the service, so you have to get your frontline teams thinking and acting in a more customer-centric way. It’s not just about the asset any more.”

Only as strong as weakest link

In addition to driving profits through increased loyalty, detailed analysis of customer contact can highlight where you might be losing money unnecessarily. This can be done by centralising management of all channels and gathering customer feedback from each touchpoint in one place. Analysing this in conjunction with real-time productivity and employee metrics offers an unprecedented view not only of where the ball is being dropped, but also why. Previously unseen drains on resources can be plugged, saving time and money.

Bax explains: “The companies that have managed to make a step-change in SIM performance have recognised that it’s the whole organisation’s responsibility to deliver customer satisfaction. It’s about having joint objectives right across the organisation. Everyone’s primary objectives and priorities should be about service to the customer first and managing the asset second. Without careful planning, you may make a change in the process in one place which creates customer problems further down the line.”

Broader benchmarking

Customers are likely to be able to choose their water company in the coming years, and the customer experience will be a key factor in their decision about where to put their money. Customer expectations will rise as they compare the service to what they experience on the high street. For this reason, it’s imperative for water companies to broaden their horizons and start benchmarking their service against that of providers in other sectors (such as John Lewis, M&S and Vodafone). Not only will this help them understand their brand and service perception in the eyes of a consumer, but it will also present valuable opportunities to learn from other companies that have also had to develop customer service as a vital differentiator.

The good news is that even the top-performing businesses are only now starting to get it right, so the opportunity to gain significant competitive advantage is still there. But a challenging market and demanding customers mean that more and more water companies are waking up to the value of creating a customer-first culture. Act now to ensure your place as a top-flight provider.