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Technology makes it possible for utilities to communicate with customers like never before, but it also raises a host of problems. Lois Vallely reports from a roundtable that discussed the issues.

When it comes to customer service, utilities are having to deliver against some pretty high expectations. Plagued by the “Amazon effect” – whereby customers expect the same high levels of service as they get from firms such as Amazon and Netflix – energy and water companies are locked in a constant battle to make and keep themselves relevant in a digital world.

Modern technology is one of the things driving an increase in customer expectations, but it is also transforming the way companies can interact with customers. Are companies harnessing the huge potential technology holds? A roundtable held in London by Utility Week, in association with Microsoft, explored this question and more.

Attendees agreed that companies need to get away from talking about “digital strategy” or “digital marketing”, because “it’s just business”. To do this, the silos need to be broken down, employees with the correct skill sets need to be hired, and partners need to be chosen carefully.

One thing companies find as they begin to invest in more technology is that they open themselves up to more customer contact. But despite investing in multiple channels of communication – such as Twitter, LinkedIn and even Instagram – the volume of inbound phone calls does not fall, so they are still having to plough investment into call centres.

Always on

Gone are the days when customers would only contact their utility between 9 and 5pm Monday-Friday. Now a customer can send a tweet at any time, and they expect a response immediately. This is one area where technology can play a role. For example, many utility companies have already invested in social media scoping software, which can scan a site such as Twitter looking for certain words.

One attendee gave the example of a customer moving house: software is able to pick out words such as the area the customer is moving to, and therefore the water company in that area can identify them as a new customer.

A question was posed about whether utility companies are relevant. Vijay Tank – director of business and digital transformation at Eon – argued that they absolutely should be. “The fact that we’re not relevant says something about either the industry or the companies. Being relevant for customers is not optional, it’s critical.”

Emergency services

Some around the table weren’t sure that customers wanted to interact with their utilities, and it was pointed out that interaction with a utility company – especially a water company – was often as a result of something going wrong.

“Customer interaction with a utility is really interesting,” said one attendee. “Do they really want to? We would like our customers to interact with us more, especially as we move into AMP7 and the C-Mex side of things.”

Previously Ofwat’s measure of customer service – the service incentive mechanism – focused solely on customers who had contacted their water company. As part of PR19, from 2020 the regulator will ask for the views of a sample of all customers, including those who have never contacted their company. This new measure – C-Mex – means the perception of the entire company is becoming increasingly important.

Delegates agreed that customers often don’t expect much in terms of service from utility companies so, strictly speaking, it should be easier to “delight” them.

One compared the situation to the process of applying for a passport from the government’s website. Having braced themselves for a long, laborious process with numerous forms to fill out and months of waiting, the attendee found the reality to be very different. The application was all online, it was slick, and the new passport arrived in days. What’s more, regular text updates were sent at different stages in the process. If the government can give a customer such a seamless experience, there is no reason why a utility company can’t, the participant said.

Firms would do well to heed this warning, because they are judged not just by the contact customers have directly with them, but by the overall perception of the company.

“In our new world, where we’re being measured on the perception of us rather than necessarily the contact a customer has with us,” said one roundtable attendee. This means anyone that’s wearing a jacket or driving a van with the company’s logo on it, is representing or is influencing the customer’s experience.”

This is a challenge for utility companies, particularly those that employ contractors. Attendees agreed that it is important to work with partners who share the same mindset and culture. After all, a customer’s perception can be damaged much quicker than it can be changed for the better.

Skills was another important issue discussed. One delegate suggested the skills issue is “not unique to the utilities sector”. “It’s recognised as a gap and a challenge across industries, that we should be doing more to recognise how we should partner on those challenges, and how you attract the best employees.”

Roundtable participants agreed that technology is an enabler for change, but it also creates difficulty for utility companies in that it increases customer expectations and the volume of customer contacts.

One delegate summed up by saying: “Every sector is dealing with the challenge of how they add value and make sure their employees are empowered to give customers far more than they would traditionally do. That needs technology, it needs intelligence, it needs the delivery mechanism and it needs people to embrace it.”

Views from the table:

Vijay Tank, director of business and digital transformation, Eon

“We should absolutely be relevant, and the fact that we’re not relevant says something about either the industry or the companies. Being relevant for customers is not optional, it’s critical.”

Steve Chawner, director of utilities, Microsoft

“You’ve got two choices. You invest in technology to innovate and open up new business models or you take on the technology to create headroom for investment in other areas.”

Kit Wilson, head of transformation, Welsh Water

“In our new world, where we’re being measured on the perception of us rather than necessarily just the contact you have with us, anyone that’s wearing a Welsh Water jacket, or driving a Welsh Water van is representing or is influencing your customer experience.”

Hannah Owen, account executive, Microsoft

“The skills issue is not unique to utilities. It’s recognised as a gap and a challenge across industries. We should be doing more to recognise how we can partner up on those challenges to upskill existing employees and attract the best new talent.”

Bill Wilson, digital channel strategy lead, Severn Trent

“We need to start embracing all forms of contact irrespective of it being ‘digital’ or not. It’s what we now do. Contact is contact irrespective of the channel that it is delivered in.”



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