Utility Week

UTILITY Week 17th October 2014

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UTILITY WEEK | 17Th - 23rd OcTObEr 2014 | 27 Customers Market view A t long last the smart metering rollout really is about to happen. So how will the experience feel for customers? In the absence of any industry-driven customer information campaign so far, the media has created its own story. The messages communicated have been primarily negative, criticising delays and costs, and have steadily influenced cus- tomers over the past five years. They have informed customers that the cost per house- hold will be more than £200, which will fil- ter through to bills at a rate of around £10 a year. The public accounts committee claims the net reduction in customers' bills will be in the region of £26 a year – just 2 per cent of the average annual bill. How might customers be feeling about those messages and the maths? On the face of it, the cost of the smart meters sounds expensive, but there is a small net saving as a result of having the meter. Maybe custom- ers feel fairly neutral on the maths. But there is a bigger issue here: trust. Customer trust in energy suppliers is on the floor. This breeds suspicion and customers question energy suppliers' ethics and sense of fair play. Customers are ill prepared for the rollout, with little idea of what to expect – so allow- ing media messaging to be so negative feels like a big mistake. If the wider benefits of smart metering can be realised, there is a potentially positive story to tell. Many customers respond warmly to "good sense" changes. Reducing electricity demand and smoothing the peaks so we don't need to build more expensive electricity generation facilities makes good sense. There is potentially more good news for customers. If the electricity distribution network operators (DNOs) can utilise data from the meter, they will be able to instantly detect, respond to and assist customers throughout power outages. There is con- siderable customer dissatisfaction with the frequency and duration of power cuts and a growing demand for proactive information. Provided the industry is ready to deliver these experiences, smart metering holds a positive message. But, if customers are not effectively warmed up to the idea soon, the costs of the programme risk further inflation. Securing an appointment and gaining access to customers' properties are funda- mentally dependent on customers' attitudes towards smart meters. If they are positive, access rates will be high. If they are negative, access rates will be low. If they are neutral, access rates will be less than optimal. Good access rates are a key to controlling costs. Let's think for a moment about the expe- rience of the installation itself. For many properties that means both a gas and an electricity meter. Assuming gas and electric- ity are provided by the same supplier, the best customer experience would be for both meters to be exchanged in the same visit. How oen will that happen? Then there's the work inside the home. Increasingly time poor and impatient cus- tomers find such appointments inconven- ient. Most customers will be dissatisfied if required to wait in all day for an engineer to arrive and install their meter(s). Most now expect a two-hour appointment time slot and a growing proportion expect one hour. If a customer buys their electricity and gas from different suppliers, they can expect two separate appointments for the meter exchanges. This will be unpopular and drive considerable dissatisfaction, especially if the two exchanges occur around the same time. The physical installation of the meters will also lead to problems, as is evident from trials and tentative rollouts. In around 2 per cent to 5 per cent of electricity meter instal- lations, a problem will be identified that will require the DNO to attend the site. This might be a fuse issue or a safety con- cern and it could take weeks for the DNO to attend. Once the DNO has completed their work, another appointment for the meter exchange needs to be made. That's three appointments to change one meter. Other likely difficulties include commu- nications issues, problems with the physi- cal space in which to fit the meter, missed appointments, dangerous situations that need rectifying before a meter can be fitted, asbestos backboards, prepayment problems, gas boilers not working properly aer meter exchange and gas appliances in the home being condemned by the meter installer. These issues might prolong the work, require the customer to commission addi- tional work at their expense or require another site visit on another day. Customer emotions will run high. The scenario reminds me of energy dereg- ulation in the mid-1990s and I wonder if we have forgotten all the lessons we learnt. Back then, the industry failed to commu- nicate what was happening to customers and to this day, considerable confusion exists about who does what in the energy industry. The legacy is poorer customer experience: customers don't know whom to contact for what and this contributes to low levels of customer satisfaction. Back then, door-to-door sales were allowed to proliferate and the result was a tardy, knee-jerk reaction to a spiralling num- ber of customer complaints. Demand for sales agents quickly outstripped supply and quality standards fell. This could so easily happen with the meter installer population. Demand for installers is going to balloon. As this bites, employers will become less picky, qual- ity standards will fall and complaints and resource costs will rise. Customer confusion around smart meter- ing is clear to see. The awareness campaign that was suggested years ago, to emulate that of the digital switchover, needs to mate- rialise soon or customer opinion will have hardened. The problems we can anticipate need a well considered and customer-focused approach to maintain the level of cus- tomer satisfaction needed to ensure this programme is a success. Now is the energy suppliers' opportunity to prove themselves trustworthy, customer focused and to turn the tide of public opinion – or not. What an opportunity– missed that would be. Nicola Eaton Sawford, managing director and customer experience architect, Customer Whisperers Get smart on smart metering Nicola Eaton Sawford fears the smart meter rollout bears too many marks of the bodged messaging that accompanied deregulation in the 1990s and anticipates a storm of customer complaints.

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