Nick Boxall-Hunt, sector manager at Rant & Rave Customers, Energy retail, Opinion, Ovo Energy, Utility Warehouse, customer satisfaction, customer trust

When it comes to customer satisfaction in the utilities sector, all too often the negative stories about the number of complaints and low scores overshadow the progress that is being made.

In truth, much of this negativity is a hangover from the “bad old days” when the market lacked true competition, poor customer service experiences hit the headlines and the utility sector was (and maybe still is) used as a political football. We are, however, witnessing a shift, with utilities businesses succeeding when it comes to their customer experience strategies.

Take the likes of Ovo Energy and Utility Warehouse, which are topping the charts for customer experience – whether it’s the Which? recommended supplier list or the Institute of Customer Service leagues. Of course, a positive customer experience won’t just affect scores, it will improve loyalty, sales and ultimately the bottom line. This raises the question: how will customer experience in the utilities sector evolve in 2018 and beyond?

Emotion trumps surveys

Utilities companies will increasingly choose customer emotion over company surveys. Traditional surveys are designed for the company and not the customer. Customers want to tell a brand exactly how it made them feel and why, in real time. The restrictive nature of traditional surveys simply does not allow this.

Simple and powerful solutions that leverage emotion let brands measure customer feedback in real time. By allowing customers to share what’s important to them in the moment, brands typically get better response rates, more insight and an opportunity to save as well as engage with customers.

Closing the loop

Utilities companies will realise the importance of showing customers what action has been taken to solve an issue. The same tools that are used to collate feedback can be used to close the loop at scale.

Whether it’s positive or negative feedback, it’s essential information. Customers want to know a brand is listening to them and acting on their feedback, not just paying lip service to it. Let the customer who supplied the information know that it was useful and – most importantly – that their comments resulted in action.

Historically, all too often closing the loop on customer experience feedback has been a chore. It should, however, be a pleasure and it needs to seep into the culture of the business. It needs to become a mindset, a behaviour across the organisation, but it’s unlikely that this change will occur organically.

Behavioural modelling will start to come from above, which means that management and leaders in the organisation must adopt this mindset first. Then, in time, the philosophy will trickle down to all employees, creating a truly transparent and customer-centric business. The link between employee engagement and customer experience will be developed further.

Employee engagement will continue to be recognised as a key driver to customer experience performance. Employee experience and customer experience go hand-in-hand – a best-in-class customer experience is delivered by motivated, committed and engaged employees. It’s also vital to empower emp­loyees to make decisions.

Greg Reed, chief executive of HomeServe, feels employee engagement has been critical to the transformation of HomeServe in the past few years.

Every morning at 8.30 am, Reed and his senior team sit down with the front line agents and listen to the changes or decisions they would like to make.

On one occasion, a HomeServe engineer was sent to a job and when he arrived he noticed through the window that the elderly customer was unconscious in her home. The engineer managed to break into the property and performed CPR which saved the lady’s life. After the incident, the engineer felt so strongly about his intervention that he recommended to the board that every one of HomeServe’s 12,000 engineers should receive first aid training, which they duly agreed to.

HomeServe has developed a culture in which every employee is proud to be making a difference in their customers’ lives. The strategy is clearly working because as well as having happy customers, HomeServe has a truly engaged workforce and the company’s stock price has risen in line with its Rant & Rave employee engagement score – from 161p to 860p over the past four years.

Keep things simple with AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a far bigger part for utilities. The sheer volume of feedback being received across all industries has seen many businesses turn to artificial intelligence systems.

Utilities providers want to make customer service as effortless as possible – for both customer and supplier – and this will take hold in 2018. Take, for example, First Utility, a brand known for innovation, which is using bots to identify key points in the customer journey where they may help – rather than the customers having to make a call. It’s all about reducing the number of inbound calls and enabling customers to self-serve while reducing the cost to serve. This helps the utility to remain competitive.

However, brands will have to consider how AI can function alongside human control because although it can help processes become more efficient, oversight is required, especially when it comes to emotionally-driven topics.