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At a roundtable event brought together by Utility Week, in association with Mando and Episerver, utility leaders discussed how digital communications can help vulnerable customers, as Ellen Bennett reports

As many as one in four customers could be classified as ‘vulnerable’ in the future, according to a group of utility leaders brought together by Utility Week in association with Mando and Episerver.

Data sharing between utilities is driving new, broader definitions of vulnerability, according to delegates at the roundtable on digital communications held at Utility Week Live in Birmingham in May. Likewise, regulatory targets – such as Ofwat’s requirement for water companies to have at least 7 per cent of their customers on the priority services register (PSR), are accelerating companies’ registration of vulnerable customers.

Delegates from water companies noted that the definition of vulnerability was currently used mainly in a major incident – a vulnerable customer will be prioritised if they go off supply. However, they suggested that the new, broader definitions of vulnerability offer an opportunity to change day-to-day contacts, ensuring that regular service interactions are tailored to the customer’s needs.

Here, digital communications can help. Mando’s client services director, Mark Simpson, suggested that some customers find it easier to have a potentially awkward conversation – such as one about their financial difficulties – using a digital channel such as webchat. According to research Simpson quoted, as many as 40 per cent of customers prefer these “faceless” interactions.

Attendees noted that some customers – vulnerable or otherwise will always prefer traditional forms of communication, but they agreed that the preference for digital was growing.

One water company leader also highlighted the role digital communications can play in efficiently validating a customer’s registration as vulnerable – under current regulation, at least 90 per cent of a company’s vulnerable customers must be validated as such within the past two years, meaning that the data needs continuous checking and updating. Digital channels provide a relatively cost-efficient way to do this.

While the good practice in data sharing around vulnerability was noted – including the influential data-sharing pilot between United Utilities and Electricity North West – there was a feeling that the industry could go further.

The idea of a central register of vulnerable customers was raised, as was the role of trusted third parties such as local charities in registering and communicating with vulnerable customers. “It’s a question of trust,” said one delegate. “We need to reposition the role of the company. We’ve not been good at explaining how we manage a service, and third parties are often in a better position to do that.”

View from the chair:
by Ellen Bennett                     

Communications or marketing?

What’s the difference between communications and marketing? That was one of the big questions raised at the roundtable.

If you take communications to be reactive – responding to queries, managing incidents and keeping as low a profile as possible – that’s a pretty good summary of where many water companies have been in the past. If you think of marketing as proactive – building a brand, shaping people’s views of the company, influencing the regional or national conversation on relevant issues – that’s often been a distant dream.

But that’s all changing. C-Mex, the regulatory measure of customer satisfaction introduced under PR19, will measure the satisfaction of customers who have not had a contact with their water company, as well as those who have. This means that water companies determined to do well under the new measure must influence all their customers, not just those who come into direct contact with them. And the best way to do that is through proactive marketing.

It’s a challenge, because no matter how much regulators call for stakeholder engagement, the average person has little wish to engage in an ongoing conversation with their water company – or their energy network, or even retailer. On average, 20 per cent of people get in touch with their water company every year – to discuss their bill or a leak – so what about the others?

One marketing leader had a vision that every time his customers turned on the tap, it would be a “brand experience” (branded taps, anyone?). A little less ambitious but perhaps more realistic was the suggestion that water companies piggyback on existing channels such as Facebook, where their customers are used to engaging frequently. Apps or other platforms that provide interesting community information as well as facts and figures directly related to an individual’s water also offer opportunities.

Voice as a user interface was also on the agenda, and while many voice experiences are still clunky, the technology is improving rapidly – and utilities must keep up.

Ultimately, the new world is going to demand digital excellence both in marketing and communications. Digital channels will play a critical role in the “mixing desk” of communications: the days of waiting for the phone to ring are well and truly over.

Comment

Mark Simpson, client services director, Mando

Harness the power of digital to make customer experience stand out

Utilities customers know what good digital customer experience looks like, because they’re also customers of Amazon, Netflix and other brands most of us have come to love for the simplicity they’ve brought to our lives.

The utilities sector, though, is one where customers don’t tend to notice you until there’s a problem. That poses a major challenge because when customers do finally engage, it is typically out of necessity or frustration. So how do you make these interactions simple, and turn a negative experience into a positive one?

Giving the customer choice

It’s true that no-one gets excited about paying a bill online, checking for the cheapest tariff or submitting their meter readings. These interactions are generally out of necessity, and not desire. Misery reduction during these moments is often more important than increasing customer experience – where tasks can be fulfilled as simply and efficiently as possible.

Digital innovation, like personalisation, artificial intelligence (AI) and voice should all be on offer – engaging with customers through multiple channels and allowing seamless switching between them.

Sky presents a really good example of promoting channel shift. If you call and the lines are really busy, it’ll actually say: “Do you want to continue this via text?” If you do, you’ll receive a text message and you’ll just have to reply to it. You’ll go through the whole account verification process on it, everything on that channel – and you can do it whenever you want, so it’s just at the customer’s ease.

The challenge comes in the inevitable conflict between increased communications and the need to remain efficient and ensure the cost to serve doesn’t spiral. One answer is to use AI to deliver automated omnichannel communications on a variety of channels.

In the UK, 48 per cent of UK homes will own a smart speaker by 2022, providing access to about 25 million people. Sixty-four per cent of leading-edge companies are confident that AI will deliver a more seamless and optimised customer experience.

South Staffs Water has already launched its own Alexa Skill, giving customers the ability to report problems with their water supply, submit a meter reading and check their account balance.

Making interaction easy for everyone

There is a growing need to create digital experiences that are inclusive, and this is becoming an increasing concern for regulators, with their focus on priority services customers. In the UK:

  • there are currently 12 million people with a mental or physical disability,
  • it is estimated that more than 1 million people will have dementia by 2025, and
  • almost 3 million households are struggling to pay their water bills.

Being a vulnerable customer can also be a temporary state, like being made redundant or breaking a leg. Being mindful of the continuum from permanent disabilities to situational impairments helps us rethink how digital experiences can scale to more people in new ways. Therefore, designing a customer experience that is accessible to those consumers actually makes it a better experience for everyone.

Personalisation is just one way that the digital customer experience can help vulnerable groups. So, serving someone targeted messaging around the priority services register when certain events are triggered on a website, like the time taken to browse pages, or repeated password resetting, for example. Our client United Utilities uses customer data insights from its MyAccount system to drive relevant and personalised calls to action within the main website, nudging changes in customer behaviour.

Pre-emptive and proactive communications

Customers who are warned pre-emptively about potential disruptions to their service are far less likely to get in touch when an incident does then occur.

Companies need to break down data silos, and correlate data relating to vulnerable areas of infrastructure with customer information, to proactively communicate to customers if they anticipate issues in their region.

Customers – particularly those most vulnerable during disruptions to service – can then take their own precautions to deal with any issues that follow.

Keeping customers informed throughout incidents is also key. We worked with our long-standing client United Utilities to display current incidents on its homepage and provide status updates for how the incident is being managed. Alerts are then distributed to customers through multiple channels.

Though if you are to push out communications at scale, you will need to ensure your infrastructure is up to the challenge of dealing with surges in customer demand. This is where cloud solutions like Microsoft Azure come into their own.

Recently, we coupled the flexibility of Microsoft Azure with the power of the Episerver DXC for a major electricity distribution network operator. When Storm Emma hit in spring 2018, a series of power outages followed. Subsequently, customers flocked to the company website to find out about problems in their area and resolution times. The power cut map, which allows customers to quickly identify any issues in their area, efficiently handled a massive increase in visits, with no downtime.

Digital customer experience in the utilities sector still has a long way to go. However, those who embrace new technologies and use them to communicate with customers when and where they choose will set themselves up for success, both with customers and the regulators.