The outlook for customer service in the utilities sector is characterised by increasing complexity. With decarbonisation, utilities are being called on to support, advise and influence consumers towards more sustainable, as well as affordable, modes of consumption.
Rising effectively to these expectations comes with potential commercial benefits, especially in the energy sector, where new ranges of green products and services offer suppliers an exciting route out of the homogenous commodity market they inhabit today.
But developing a customer service strategy to support this is not straightforward, as a group of customer operations and strategy leaders at a recent discussion, hosted by Utility Week in association with WNS, found.
A key consideration for success, they suggested, will be the ability of firms to effectively segment what different customer groups want in terms of net zero messaging and engagement. While some will be highly motivated by a “green” agenda and have the financial means to adopt a range of new technologies to optimise their energy or water consumption, others will not. Traditional customer profiles and segmentations may not help utilities engage current or prospective customers.
Furthermore, assuming utilities can create useful new customer personas, equipping customer service agents to use these effectively will be a major challenge, said our group. Difficulties will arise, for example, in training staff on the relative merits and applicability of a widening set of products and services for an individual. This could shift dramatically depending on factors like their financial stability, family situation or domestic environment. And with training delivered, agents will also need to be constantly supported with accurate, real-time data about a customer’s consumption habits and their current engagement with other products or services in a utilities’ portfolio so that inappropriate cross-selling or double selling is avoided at all costs.
Getting this unity of customer information in place and upskilling agents will come at no small cost, our event participants unanimously agreed. And in a utilities market where profits are hard to come by and the pressure on bills is extreme, there was concern that this could stifle innovation in customer service.
James Towner of WNS attended this industry debate and here offers his reflections on the tension between drivers for service innovation and the need for efficiency.
At WNS we see innovation as a characteristic of what we do, a cultural ethos embedded throughout the organisation and embodied in our vision of “co-creation”.
When we ask ourselves “how could this be better?” we look at it through the lens of the customer – what is easy, what is effortless?
What our customers are telling us through various feedback formats really helps us and our utility clients pinpoint the things which cause irritation and drive unnecessary contact. But it’s also essential to listen to what our agents are telling us.
We believe that time spent with our frontline is often more informative than all the data in the world. If we can make contact handling easier for agents by removing unnecessary steps, simplifying systems and giving greater access to relevant data then this will help the customer.
Most people don’t really want to contact their utility provider at all. They typically do so because of a problem (incorrect bill, supply issues, etc) or necessity (moving home, change of name or other details, etc). A significant focus of innovation has therefore rightly been on how certain activities or tasks can be undertaken through self-service online or using smartphone apps. These innovations get better each year as the quality of the design and the use of the available technology improves.
Despite this, there is still a high volume of contact into customer centres, driving a further stage of innovation around smart ways of deflecting customers to automated bots or other more efficient channels such as webchat. After this, remaining contacts are dealt with by human agents who, over time, will by default begin to handle a higher percentage of complex enquiries because the simple and easy have been removed.
This, in itself, brings challenges as arguably handling simple contacts as part of a mix with complex one provides a natural break for agents and avoids them becoming worn out.
Creating efficiency within customer services can be used in different ways – to reduce the cost of service; create time to upsell, attract or retain customers; talk about water efficiency and how to become greener in the home or to reinvest in agent training. The strategic question is how to use this time or capacity. Ultimately, the answer will be a mixed one, balancing multiple business needs, but as the range and complexity of energy products in particular grows, it is likely that a growing emphasis will need to be placed on releasing time for service agent to advise customers on their best options for improving their sustainability.
In conclusion, we believe efficiency is an important outcome of innovation and should not be allowed to inhibit creativity aimed at improving overall service.
James Towner, senior vice president – energy and utilities, WNS