Utility Week

Utility Week 24th February 2017

Utility Week - authoritative, impartial and essential reading for senior people within utilities, regulators and government

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Page 26 of 31

UTILITY WEEK | 24TH FEBRUARY - 2ND MARCH 2017 | 27 Customers Market view G iven customers' constant need for water and energy and the seasonal variations in their experiences, utilities face significant operational issues through- out the year. These issues can add to busi- ness costs and, if not quickly resolved, lead to the potential loss of customer advocacy. The total number of written complaints received by water companies in 2015/16 was 106,196; of these, 64,425 (61 per cent) were related to billing and charges. In a similar vein, Ofgem's consumer engagement survey for 2016 showed that only 16 per cent of customers fully under- stood the range of tariffs available to them from energy and gas suppliers (dual-fuel only), while 42 per cent said they were unfa- miliar with the features of their current tariff. Both industries have taken great strides in their treatment of customers, but at the heart of these statistics is a lack of customer understanding. If this results in a dispropor- tionate number of queries and complaints, business operations can be affected both in terms of capacity and cost. Clearer communication can improve cus- tomers' understanding of their bills. It can also give utility companies a competitive edge while lowering the number of queries and complaints they receive. This is especially true as the perfor- mance of energy and water companies alike is becoming more transparent. The service incentive mechanism (SIM) in water and the imminent switch to principles-based regula- tion in energy are delivering support for con- sumers when it comes to decisions about the suitability of utilities supply. There are three areas that utilities can reflect on to understand how effectively they communicate with their customers: senior management and culture, communication design and the frontline. 1. Senior management/culture Internal corporate culture is pivotal to cus- tomer engagement. Ensuring each area of your business is aligned to a common cus- tomer strategy and commercial goals can make customers' experience more cohesive. Does your business have an appetite for open discussions about how to improve overall customer experience and under- standing? Do these messages make their way to the frontline through training and other forms of engagement? To what extent are communications assessed, and are reviews of communications a regular occurrence? Senior leaders play a vital role in the endorsement of behaviour that drives a customer-centric culture. The "tone from the top" cascades downwards and helps to ensure the organisation works towards its goals, and does so through its values. Communications with customers should therefore be high on the board's agenda. Companies need to: • obtain and understand the appropriate information required to maintain a clear view of complaints and communications performance • recognise the benefits of proactive and proportionate consumer engagement in lowering query and complaints numbers • ensure a robust approval process for customer communications that consid- ers both regulatory and commercial requirements • regularly review all communications • ensure the ownership of, and account- ability for, customer satisfaction has been apportioned correctly at board level. 2. Communication design Utilities must ensure their customer com- munications enable understanding and do not leave any ambiguity. However, perhaps equally important is the timeliness of your message. There is an opportunity here for com- panies to be more communicative ahead of seasonal complaint spikes. Many complaints made around this time relate to billing and can be attributed to customers receiving their first bill of the winter months, which is likely to be higher than in other seasons. When it comes to communication design and the design of the customer journey, ensure that those involved have the right level of regulatory knowledge and an appro- priate level of training. Make sure that issues such as customer vulnerability are front of mind, and that there are channels for staff to escalate any concerns upwards. 3. The frontline Frontline staff play a major role in reinforcing the messages you wish to convey to custom- ers. Consistency is key here, so ensure staff understand your customer strategy, have the knowledge they need, and receive regular training to enhance their regulatory skills. SIM scoring in water and the wealth of comparison data coming out of Ofgem in energy are helping utility companies contex- tualise their performance against their peers. However, the industry-wide nature of this data can mean that insight here is not always sufficiently granular. Internal outcomes test- ing can offer a much more tailored view. Performing outcomes testing on commu- nications and continually improving them are key corporate tools. A high-level process for outcomes testing incorporates five steps: agree the desired outcome of individual communications being tested; capture and assess all relevant customer information; classify the effectiveness of communications on a sliding scale; identify the root causes of any issues; and address those root causes by making any necessary changes to processes, policies and procedures. By addressing the root causes of issues, utilities can make big improvements to the overall satisfaction of their customers. It is clear that in both the water and energy sec- tors, the root cause of problems is a lack of clarity over what customers are paying for. Utilities will continue to be susceptible to periodic operational challenges due to the nature of the services they offer. However, focusing on the considerations outlined here can help ensure these challenges are not compounded by high volumes of customer contact relating to billing and charges. Estab- lishing the root cause of issues and achiev- ing a continuous cycle of improvement using internal outcomes testing can help compa- nies eliminate heavy customer contact costs. Alex Prentice, client partner, Huntswood Clarity lifts the bottom line Maximising your efforts to help your customers understand exactly what they are paying for will lead to a reduction in the number and frequency of complaints, says Alex Prentice.

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