It’s good to talk – but social media remains a very public minefield for companies. Rachel Willcox looks at the do’s, the don’ts and the growing opportunities for utilities.

With figures suggesting that there are now 45 million social media users in the UK, representing a staggering two-thirds of the population, it’s no wonder the utility sector is looking for a piece of the action, as companies desperately try to make their brand stand out in a positive way.

But it’s fair to say that the utility sector doesn’t always get it right. The consequences of a misjudged social media post or campaign can be anything from a few laughs at your expense to a major backlash against your brand.

In October 2013, the PR team at British Gas showed the industry how not to do social media when it turned to Twitter to ask users what they thought of the brand using the hashtag #askBG on the same day that the company announced a 10 per cent hike in residential energy bills. Not surprisingly, there followed an hour of Twitter roasting as the company became the butt of jokes and faced angry responses about the cynical timing of its price rises specifically and its social media strategy generally.

Meaningful engagement

Six years on, and the utility sector is, experts say, still largely missing a trick when it comes to engaging meaningfully with customers using social networks, even though – against a backdrop of an increasingly competitive landscape, greater ease of switching and rising customer expectations – it is under pressure to deliver a better and compelling customer experience at a lower cost.

“Utility companies are not typically the type of organisations to win public popularity contests,” says Steve Earl, managing director Europe of PR agency Zeno Group and co-author of Brand Anarchy, published by Bloomsbury. “A board director at one of the largest ones once told me that he’d be happy if the business had zero consumer interaction beyond bill payment, because it would mean a friction-free customer relationship and make it the ‘purest’ utility provider possible.”

But social media means the walls between companies and consumers have come down, so there is no choice but to engage and be ready for conversation, Earl warns. “You might be a utility provider, but no brand can be a utility – brands have to be part and parcel of daily life on social networks, otherwise they’ll be simply there to be shot at if something bad comes their way.”

Trolling is rife as the number of people turning to public platforms to vent their frustration about utility brands is at an all-time high. Often, things go wrong on social media because it has been siloed away from other communication departments, including marketing and PR, and outsourced or left to a small in-house team.

“From a technology perspective, utility companies need to ensure they can join up social interactions such as a tweet or Facebook wall post with other tools such as CRM and complaint handling systems, so that customer interactions are context aware and meaningful,” adds Aseem Sadana, executive vice president at IMImobile.

Speedy response

When responding to complaints and dealing with emergency situations, speed is of the essence: it’s better to post something quickly rather than labouring over a polished PR message that you push out two days later, says Mark Sherwin, managing director of global digital customer services at Accenture Interactive. “That’s counterintuitive to most corporate comms departments. It has to be about empowering more people to be able to act effectively and having a centre of excellence for standards and training, rather than teaching everyone to be a corporate comms person.”

Providing an always-on service is a challenge, but social media isn’t something you can do on a part-time basis, according to Sam Fuller, head of customer service at UK Power Networks. “Our social media messaging team is available 24/7, responding to messages within four minutes on average, and deals with 2,000 to 3,000 messages a month. The next closest in our industry handles fewer than 1,500. People expect that level of service generally, but some are still surprised to see a utility company respond so fast,” he explains.

The latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index from the Institute of Customer Service shows there is plenty of room for improvement in the handling of complaints across the utility sector. “Social media is one important part of a blended customer experience, along with face-to-face interactions and telephone conversations,” the institute’s CEO, Joanna Causon, tells Utility Week. “By investing in staff training and listening to customers, the sector can continue to deliver and improve on customer satisfaction levels.”

Opportunity

More than simply deflecting criticism, the right social media strategy presents a huge opportunity for utility sector companies to break out from a cycle of customer engagement that is poor or driven purely by regulatory cycles, points out Marc Tritschler, an energy expert at PA Consulting. “Developing a comprehensive social media strategy enables utilities to better understand what their customers are saying about them and provides a channel for clear and consistent messaging,” he says.

But staying relevant to customers in a world of fleeting attention spans and ever-changing expectations is easier said than done. It requires constant review and updating of the social media strategy and day-to-day management across all social media channels.

Careful selection of topics on which to engage and the timing of engagement are key. “For example, recent water company support of initiatives to provide public water fountains has enjoyed increased relevancy with customers through its association with the reduction in single-use plastic bottles,” Tritschler says.

By contrast, recent water company engagement on social media to encourage customers to be more water efficient resulted in a backlash because of the current scale of water company leakage.

“The utility and energy sectors are doing some amazing work in lowering emissions, improving energy efficiency and adopting more renewable energy supplies,” says Sara Hawthorn, managing director of specialist energy communications agency InFusion Comms. “These are stories that can be communicated beautifully through channels like Instagram and help customers to understand more about the companies that supply their utilities.”

Drive value

The rule of thumb is to identify how you can use social media to drive value for customers, according to Laura Price, director of digital communications at Centrica. “Be timely, be relevant and be useful. Ensure there is a balance of product news, business news, relevant stories, cultural events, national days and sales and promotions. As a utility provider, it’s important not to be overly ‘salesy’ and to ensure customer service remains the key priority,” Price says.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to admit when something has gone wrong or if you don’t know the answer. Research conducted by PwC found that two-thirds of consumers would forgive a brand that isn’t perfect but that is seen to be trying.

“Communicating in a more human way means admitting if something isn’t right; it’s explaining honestly what you’re doing to fix it and reassuring people that you’ll keep them in the loop,” Hawthorn says.

Justin Haines, director of customer service at Ovo Energy, says the number of customers who use social media channels to contact the company is increasing year on year, bringing the tally to more than 30,000 in the past six months alone.

“To be a successful retail business we need to hold ourselves to being best in class, rather than best in industry, when it comes to digital tools and social media. There is very little we cannot handle or help resolve via our social channels, therefore allowing customers to get in touch through their channel of choice gives them reassurance, because they know we will be able to help and resolve any questions or queries.

“Ovo customers are tech-savvy, with the majority using our digital tools to access and manage their account. One of the ways customers can get involved is through the Ovo Forum. Launched in 2017, it now receives over 60,000 visits a month. Ovo Forum provides support for customers through support-based FAQs, user-generated content around feature requests, and engagement. The Ovo Forum has also been successful at educating customers on new products, including the launch of a dedicated electric vehicle tariff, EV Everywhere.

“We regularly engage with our customers and share feedback internally on their comments around our products and services to help us improve,” Haines adds.

Improving reach

One obvious benefit to social media is that it offers the potential to dramatically improve the reach of communications. “Sharing incident information on social media channels helps reduce the requirements for customer contact, because customers are already aware of the incident. Sharing updates on social media helps keep customers informed, not just those who have contacted the company to report the incident,” Tritschler says.

Yet only 18 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by advertising agency Every­thing Different said they frequently receive information from utilities through social media.

The agency also found that students are the most targeted group by social media, even though 45 per cent of Facebook users are aged over 45. “Don’t make assumptions about who’s using social media,” warns Ben Quigley, the agency’s group chief executive. “Utilities are sitting on huge amounts of data about their customers. They need to do a better job of segmenting it and using social media to communicate to specific groups.”

Future trends

In future, Accenture’s Sherwin believes use of predictive analytics that trawl social media to spot trends and forecast incidents will allow utilities to proactively anticipate demand or frustration and communicate accordingly. Utilities should also be mindful of conversations happening away from public platforms, for example, via Messenger, WhatsApp and Telegram. It’s thought that almost 75 per cent of content is now shared on so-called “dark social” (such as private channels, instant messaging apps and emojis).

“If a company has works planned, guide people towards a WhatsApp channel for regular updates and issue a daily broadcast,” Hawthorn says. “This gives customers the chance to communicate directly with you. Similarly, the growth of home assistants offers a brand-new opportunity to update customers in their own home with voice updates, upcoming changes, even when bills or fixed rates are coming up for review.”

Fundamentally, social media can be a good engagement channel if it is well handled, a good way to share service updates broadly and a good way to behave as a positive corporate citizen, Earl says, adding: “Responsive, defensive capabilities are needed too, but the better a company is at good behaviour online, the better its odds at enlisting advocate support when the proverbial hits the fan.”

Regulatory updates required

An Energy UK spokesperson said it was important that regulation kept pace and allowed suppliers to make full use of the different options now available for communicating with customers. “For example, in one important area of customer communications – complaints handling – the regulations that suppliers must follow go back many years, predating the subsequent growth in social media usage, so updating these to reflect that change would be a positive step.”

And what has British Gas parent Centrica learned since its social media gaffe? “To put customer service at the heart of our social media strategy, post regularly and ensure that the social media experience our customers enjoy is interactive, helpful and adds value to their lives,” Price says. “It’s crucial to show empathy and know when to dial up or down any lighthearted responses.”

Keeping customers warm and in the loop

Price explains how the utility giant turned to social media during last year’s extreme weather conditions.

“When the Beast from the East struck in March 2018, our people couldn’t get to work, many of the phone lines went down and our customers were only able to contact us via social media. The extreme weather led to boiler breakdowns and frozen condensate pipes, leaving customers with no hot water or heating.

“We received over 49,500 customer posts during that week, compared with around 7,000 the week before. While aiming to respond directly to everyone who contacted us, we also produced content in real time, proactively posting videos and infographics with self-serve tips to help our customers get their boilers working again without needing an engineer.

“For those who had tried our self-serve tips but couldn’t get their boilers restarted, we shared steps on how to book an engineer online rather than booking one over the phone. Not only were we able to help many of our customers and get their boilers working again, we reduced the need for engineer call-outs, meaning our engineers could get to those people most in need, such as the elderly or those with new babies and young families.

“We kept everyone updated as to when our contact centres would be reopening and our customers could see that we were working hard to help them stay warm, despite the challenges caused by the extreme weather.”