Utility Week

UTILITY Week 30th January 2015

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Customers Customer care starts with a phone call… W ith Ofwat launching a strategy to get water companies focused on customer wants and needs, it might have been expected that the eyes of everyone in the room would have been on the keynote speakers. But, looking across the packed conference hall in Birmingham, at least half the heads were bowed and thumbs firing as tweets flew into the ether. This should not be seen as a negative. Rather, with Twitter high on the list of pre- ferred ways to engage customers, the wide- spread use of this social media platform at Utility Week's Water Customer conference, sponsored by Sopra Steria and Rant & Rave, could be interpreted as heartening. The demands of dynamic interaction with customers in the current climate were clearly demonstrated at the event by Northumbrian Water's corporate affairs and customer care duo, Cara Charlton and James Muir. Their lively presentation took delegates through the history of customer communications, from the humble carrier pigeon – which "could get lost, or just get tired and give up" – through the "snail mail" era and up to the "omni-platform" of today. Realising the customer is free to use any platform they like to express their views or experiences with companies, Muir urged water companies to be ready to meet them in their communications arena of choice – par- ticularly unhappy customers. Dealing with complaints quickly and politely will help win over the customer, it was agreed – potentially turning a negative into a positive. Northumbrian Water offered an example of a customer who complained about a leak, but who then became a brand ambassador within nine tweets. That's some- thing that could not have been achieved in the days of postal communications. Another reflection on where the industry has been and where it is heading was given by CCWater chair Dame Yve Buckland, on what was her final outing as leader of the water watchdog. She said that when she entered the role ten years ago the industry faced significant challenges. This included a price review that saw bills increase by more than 8 per cent, and scathing attacks from the media aer the drought of 2005 and high leakage levels. Tweets Social media were outlined as a significant part of the customer experience and an area in which water companies can develop and improve. In the spirit of the industry adopting and embracing social media, here are some views on the #watercustomer conference in 140 characters: • Roger Darlington @darlingtonroger Social media is about psychology and sociology rather than technology, says Cara Charlton of Northumbria Water #watercustomer • Northumbrian Water @NorthumbrianH2O @thameswater talking about smart metering and the potential of 'time-of-day' tariffs… interesting #watercustomer • CCWater @WaterWatchdog ..@dameyveb says CCWater must continue to hold up a mirror to itself and make sure it is delivering what customers want #watercustomer • Rant & Rave @RantandRaveUK This year's #watercustomer conference is bigger than ever and is testament to the industry focus on the customer! @UtilityWeek Conference Water Customer Conference, 21 January 22 | 30th January - 5th February 2015 | utILIty WeeK Sponsored by Sopra Steria and rant & rave "There was real public disaffection; something on par with things going on now in energy," she said. And this was reflected in a 20 per cent growth in com- plaints in 2005. Things have undoubtedly improved since then – and progress in engaging with cus- tomers has been a big part of that. In 2013, written complaints to CCWater fell for the sixth successive year, down by 18 per cent on 2012/13 to just over 123,000. "Still too many, but definitely a massive improvement," according to Buckland, who also warned the industry not to get complacent or to get swal- lowed up in consumer disquiet with regard to other utilities – namely energy. Rounding off the day, Roger Darlington, chair of the South East Water customer chal- lenge group (CCG), posed some questions about the future. Despite the demise of the official CCG aer PR14, Darlington urged companies to keep them – as indeed some are. He said doing so would ensure custom- ers maintained significant influence and helped companies to achieve the customer- centricity they have to demonstrate to the regulator. Everyone was positive about the water sector's progress on customer service over the past decade. But despite delegates' busy digits at this event, it was also agreed that there is a long way to go in adopting new technologies – such as smartphones and instant access to social media – as standard interaction platforms and as ways to keep customers #happy.

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