In years gone by, the UK utilities sector has been dominated by a small number of organizations, such as the "big six" energy suppliers. Although customers did switch provider, they didn't do so as frequently as they do now, and there were far fewer "challenger" providers. In fact, 49% of customers switching electricity moved to a "small" firm in June this year, a 19% increase on the previous month. With providers offering similar prices and plans, it's easy to see why it's hard for any one company to truly stand out -- this leads to low levels of customer loyalty.
In addition, suppliers are also trying to rebrand themselves through the use of smart meters, mobile apps and integration with modern technologies. However, this rebrand is being held back by lackluster customer service, which taints the overall experience. Businesses are failing to make use of proactive outbound communications which can be harnessed to improve the overall customer experience. As such, here are three key outbound steps for utility providers to improve the customer experience they provide.
More and more energy is being generated by renewable sources, such as wind power and hydro.
(Image: British Gas)
Keeping customers informed
When it comes to building loyalty and trust, the main issue many providers face is a lack of clear communication with customers. Complicated pricing structures, bills or service issues can be a point of consternation for customers, who then seek clarification from the business. Much of this information can instead be provided through proactive outbound communication, thus reducing the need for customers to make first contract and building trust with the organization, yet rarely does this happen.
Organizations should be looking to keep customers informed, on the channel they prefer for each type of event -- whether text, e-mail, phone, post -- without them needing to ask. This could be real-time texts to warn of service outages or maintenance work, or just telling customers about higher than average usage or bills by email. Volunteering this information and delivering it in a way the customer wants will help them to feel their supplier is "on their side" and trying to help them rather than just collecting bill payments. Businesses should also make it easy for customer to opt in or out of channels, thus allowing them to customize contact should their preferences change.
Building the relationship
Keeping customers informed is one thing, but it's vital that providers also ensure all outbound communications with customers are delivered to a high standard. This means they need to ensure continuity, so when contact is made, they can safeguard the level of service. For instance, a customer calling into the contact center after receiving a text message about maintenance would expect the agent to know why they are calling. If they do not, this can seriously harm the relationship with the customers.
Outbound communication can also be used to add value to the customer relationship at other times too. For instance, by providing advice on heating your home in advance of winter, or how to reduce water usage during the summer. Additionally, businesses can share short post-contact surveys, so the company gets feedback and can measure the effectiveness of their customer experiences, whilst the customer feels like the company cares about their opinion.
Smart meters are being rolled out across the UK, which is helping customers understand their energy usage, and therefore their bills. (Image: British Gas)
Modernization enabled by communication
It's clear utilities providers are trying to modernize. Spurred on by smart-home tech, there has been large-scale investment into smart meters and the systems that enable them. This is something companies should be looking to leverage further, by using smart thermostats, sensors, and other IoT devices to proactively provide information about usage. However, any data that is collected must be integrated into customer service systems for agents and contact centers to truly make use of it -- if it's sitting in silos, it's no good to anyone. If correctly integrated, there is an opportunity to use outbound communications to provide suggestions on how customers can save money or energy/water based on the information from these devices.
Not only does this help customers make better use of IoT devices they may already have, but it can influence up/cross-selling opportunities. By analyzing data, the utility provider might be able to suggest better tariffs or new green systems such as solar panels or water harvesting, and further connected systems. This builds more trust and appreciation for what the company provides, improving customer satisfaction and retention without being seen as a "money grabbing" exercise.
If utilities providers want to stand out in a marketplace that faces huge amounts of churn and a lack of customer loyalty, one of the few ways they will be able to do so if through improved customer service. Not only do they need to use outbound communications effectively, to keep customers informed, but this needs to be part of an overall "next generation" customer experience. Only then can they turn the tide on customer churn and build customer loyalty in the long term.
Ashish Koul, President, Acqueon