Why engaged employees can solve the customer conundrum

Customer satisfaction with utilities is at a low ebb. Could taking steps to improve employee engagement turn things around? Senior figures from UK Power Networks, Thames Water and Utilita share their views with Utility Week.


If Bill Gates’s maxim that “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” is true, the cynic might say that right now utilities should be able to download a whole curriculum from theirs.

It’s not just Surfers Against Sewage that are disgruntled. In January, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index ranked energy and water networks bottom of the 13 industries it considers, below transport (no mean feat at a time of widespread rail strikes) and local and national public services (as cuts impact families across the country).

Some of the factors affecting customer satisfaction are outside utilities’ control (the war in Ukraine and a challenging macro-economic environment). Some of them aren’t (a lack of investment in infrastructure and poor environmental performance). Either way, improvements are needed. More effective employee engagement, the experts say, is a great place to start.

That’s because there’s a clear link between disengaged employees and unhappy customers.

UK Power Networks (UKPN) outperforms other utilities on both the UK Customer Satisfaction Index and ranked number one in 2022 in Ofgem’s Broad Measure of Customer Satisfaction. Alex Williams, its head of customer contact centre, says establishing a culture where employees are engaged has been key to that. He says: “It’s simple: low levels of employee engagement result in reduced customer service.”

Russell Lane, head of customer experience at Utilita Energy, says that disengagement negatively impacts calls from the off. “Whenever a customer contacts us, we want them to speak to somebody who is invested in their issue or request, dealing with it in real time if possible. If you hear that an agent is disengaged it presents an issue from the beginning. It sets a tone for that interaction, and there is the possibility of eroding the trust the customer has in a positive outcome.”

Alex Sturge, head of communications, media and engagement at UKPN, adds: “You can’t really hide disengagement; it is there for all to see, especially customers. It is apparent in your demeanour, body language and the energy and passion you bring to a job. If you feel disengaged, you just won’t be offering a 10/10 service – whether you realise it or not.”

A family culture that listens

So how you can you create an engaged workforce and with it a stellar experience for customers? For one thing, a sense of belonging at work may translate into commitment to the business. Sturge says UKPN prides itself on its family culture, and that helps make it a place where employees tend to stay. “Many achieve 40 years or more service,” he points out.

And it’s not just employees who should be treated like family. Lane says customers benefit from a familiar, friendly approach. “If one of your friends or family calls with a problem, you move heaven and Earth to help them,” says Lane. “That’s the sort of effort we need to put into supporting our customers. And that’s something we can all understand.”

Part of UKPN’s approach to engagement is to ensure employees are listened to. Willams says: “The customer workforce must be empowered to speak up and make changes. It’s important we listen to their ideas and follow through.” He says 85% of measures to improve customer service are sourced from employees. The company holds an ‘if you were in charge’ session for workers at its employee roadshows where they are asked to consider the business as if they were CEO, looking at everything from financials to wellbeing. One of the outcomes of this was to stop tracking call duration and focus on the customer experience in response to feedback that staff wanted more time to serve customers.

Other employee engagement measures include celebrating top performers by team each week, displaying Trustpilot reviews praising individual agents in the contact centre, and annual awards. When performance isn’t where it should be, the focus is on data. “Our service improvement team is data-led,” Williams explains. “If something goes wrong, they focus on the issues, never the person.”

The focus on employee engagement extends to director level with engagement one of the CEO’s performance measures. Visibility of senior managers is fundamental to employee engagement, says Sturge. “Our CEO visits 24 locations a year, publishes 36 video updates, and hosts four leadership conferences. Being informed, understanding key messages and progress on our priorities is a great driver of engagement. All of our directors have an app to log and track employee feedback; they create actions on the app that are monitored and seen through to completion.”

“For me, one of the fundamentals of engagement is actually making sure that employees feel like they are being listened to,” agrees Lane. He says their feedback may solve problems or identify concerns. “That’s where staff empowerment comes in. We want ideas from the people that are regularly talking to customers.”

Often results can be achieved by tweaking processes rather than massive change, he says. “Smaller implementations can happen overnight – not everything needs an army of developers, IT solutions or big meetings. The smallest thing could lead to the greatest reward.”

Call centres that never forget

Like his peers, Thames Water director of customer services Chris Pollard emphasises the human touch when it comes to the customer experience. “Colleagues who don’t empathise with customers won’t strive to deliver their needs.”

Leadership is also important. He points out that managers and directors often have direct contact with customers – they may hand out bottles of water during a supply interruption or take calls in the contact centre. “It is very healthy for all of us to make sure we are talking to customers – frontline colleagues might be struggling with a conversation and need a helping hand.”

In terms of engagement, Pollard is trialling a system called Clever Nelly which improves knowledge levels (and retention) by asking contact centre agents multiple choice questions and providing feedback. The system philosophy is one of “gentle, continuous assessment”. “Retention and competency levels are important as we continue to improve customer journeys. It’s important to remember that there is a lot of information to take onboard at a company like Thames Water.”

One of the biggest changes made by Pollard was the decision to in-source call centres to Swindon. In fact, the beginning of April marked the first time in more than 21 years that all of Thames Water’s customer voice calls were answered in-house, without using a third-party outsourcer, he says. Not only has the move improved customer service – there has been a significant reduction in complaints – but it has also meant Thames Water has been able to recruit 300 employees in the local area.

It’s not that outsourcing with partners has been abandoned, however. “You can outsource traditional transactional services that don’t need voice or telephone interaction. For example, we’ve done this successfully with our two-way messaging WhatsApp service.”

The call centre worker demographic is typically younger. Utilita has been organising forums with students around the country to better understand the needs and aspirations of younger workers. One of the surprising findings of the company’s research, explains Lane, was that Gen Zers were content to wait on the phone for periods of up to 30 minutes to get through to a contact centre.

As well as wanting to speak to a person, they were also inclined to queue to be served by someone at a supermarket rather than using a self-checkout. So, the notion that youngsters want everything to be automated and digitalised may not necessarily follow. Lane says: “The research raises an interesting observation, which is that Covid drove a lack of social interaction for that particular age group – and it has clearly influenced their ongoing behaviour.”

Utilita also recognises the importance of face-to-face interaction for serving customers. “If you went back 30 years, electricity and gas companies had local stores, and that’s why today we have 10 customer hubs on high streets across the country,” points out Lane. “Ultimately, we are here to support our communities.”

Meanwhile Chris Pollard says that appealing to the desire for purpose at work is another important element of engaging younger workers.

He concludes: “They are looking for more than remuneration and are keen on Thames Water’s social purpose and responsibility to the environment.

“When we improve in those areas, we need to shout about that.”

For more inspiration on improving customer service, sign up for our webinar with Capita. And look out for Utility Week / ServiceNow’s forthcoming research report on employee engagement.