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Going above and beyond in utilities CX: succeeding with empathetic service


2020 was a game-changer for the utilities industry. Not only was there hitherto unseen acceleration of digital transformation as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, but the industry also found itself basking in levels of trust and customer satisfaction that only a few years ago would have been unimaginable. Yet there’s no scope for utilities companies to sit back: the industry faces a pressing agenda of change, whether it’s servicing growing numbers of vulnerable customers, keeping a lid on costs or delivering the decarbonisation agenda. To reflect on the challenges of the past year and look to the opportunities ahead, Marketforce, Salesforce Industries and Smart Communications brought together experts in two virtual roundtables to discuss their experiences and share best practice.

“As price continues to become less of a differentiator between suppliers and with customer expectations for a more personalised experience increasing, utilities suppliers’ CX capabilities will come under greater scrutiny from both the regulator and customer,” said Nick Kelly, Account Director of Smart Communications. “Providing an exceptional and empathetic service tailored to each and every customer’s needs will be key to moving forward – and there’s no time to waste.”

“A generic service will not cater for the most vulnerable in society.”

Kit Wilson, Welsh Water

Kit Wilson, Head of Transformation at Welsh Water, agreed there’s an urgent need to shift from a one-size fits-all approach towards a more tailored service. “A generic service will not cater for the most vulnerable in society,” he said, adding that vulnerability can take many forms, from digital exclusion to language barriers and financial problems.

Rather than adding costs, Wilson said personalisation can actually improve efficiency. “People assume it will cost more but if you get it right, using data, automation and machine learning, the cost to serve is lower. With more first contact resolution, customers are more satisfied, less likely to raise a complaint and there’s less chance of them falling into debt, which of course costs a lot to recover.”

Effective personalisation is more than just clever segmentation, cautioned Wilson. “Do not assume you know what these cohorts want,” he said. “You need to ask them and engage them.”

Welsh Water has been deploying user centred design principles as it redesigns its customer journeys, using wireframes rather than full integration so it can readily incorporate customer feedback. Digital journeys are tailored to a customer’s needs, with a new digital debt solution, for example, helping customers onto social tariffs or pointing out eligibility for benefits. “This has to be automated, because if you tried to do this manually it would cost a fortune,” said Wilson.

People First

The rise of automation and self-serve solutions doesn’t mean the end of the human touch. Kit Wilson of Welsh Water stressed that empathy has never been more important. “From the get-go of the pandemic, we were being proactive and reaching out to customers. Three months into the pandemic, we increased the size of our vulnerable customer team to deal with the inevitable fall out of people falling further into debt,” he said. “We think it will save us money in the long term.”

The company also invested in the wellbeing of its employees, recognising the pressures many were under while working from home. “Employee wellbeing must be the number one priority otherwise how can we expect them to provide really strong, empathetic and personalised service to our customers,” said Wilson, who shared five principles that Welsh Water developed for its employees and which really struck a chord with the roundtable participants.

“You are not working at home – you are at home during a global crisis trying to work and we appreciate what you are doing”

Kit Wilson, Welsh Water

“One, your mental and physical health is more important than anything else and should always come first,” said Wilson. “Two, we understand you might not be able to do as much as normal. Three, you are not working at home, you are at home during a global crisis trying to work and we appreciate what you are doing. Four, do not judge your performance against others. Everyone’s circumstances are unique. Five, be kind. Everyone has days when they struggle and we do not realise how much support and kindness from your colleagues helps.”

Companies shared the tips, training and support that worked in their organisations during this period of disruption and dislocation, whether it was Costa Coffee vouchers so field teams could have a moment of calm with a hot drink, mental health training for contact centre agents and “pet of the week” slots during the weekly Zoom catch-up. A number of companies deployed their CEOs to share their thoughts and insights, whether in live Q&A sessions or podcasts, which proved popular in connecting far flung workforces.

A number of speakers said the split between those working from home and those still out in the field had created some internal tensions. “We reassured our customer-facing field teams, made sure they had the right PPE in place and phased out some non-essential jobs to make sure they felt there were being looked after and treasured,” said one participant, who said some of those working from home had their own struggles, whether it was pressures of childcare or a lack of suitable workspace. “The tensions certainly highlighted how the pandemic hit everybody in different ways and not to judge but to be kind.”

Trust at “all time high”

“Trust in utilities is at an all-time high as a result of the pandemic”

Nick Kelly, Smart Communications

The focus on empathy and kindness appears to have helped rehabilitate the industry’s reputation. “Trust in utilities is at an all-time high as a result of the pandemic, especially when compared to industries such as financial services where trust is going in the opposite direction,” noted Nick Kelly of Smart Communications.

“Our CSAT scores are incredibly high across all of our sectors,” said one industry executive. “At first we thought it was part of the “halo factor” because we were one of the few organisations that people could see were still out there working and it meant there was more visibility of what we do. But the high scores have been maintained and it seems there’s more appreciation of us delivering for our customers in a way we didn’t have before.”

It helps that the industry has been embracing what Welsh water describes as “leading with empathy”. This means not just “talking the talk” but also “walking the walk” in terms of developing initiatives and solutions that are sensitive to customers’ needs and help make life better. One participant described bringing forward a project that allows vulnerable customers to top up their account over the low-use summer months in order to bank credit for the colder autumn and winter months. “The response from customers was absolutely fantastic, with 25,000 engaging and very quick take up, even though we didn’t have time to do all the marketing we would like to have done.”

It’s clear the empathy displayed over the past year, from new digital solutions to customer-friendly product innovations, is burnishing the industry’s reputation. However, one speaker noted that the patience and understanding that marked 2020 was now wearing thin one year into the pandemic. “We’re seeing that shift in customers now, especially as we still have some resource shortages from when people were shielding so we still have some jobs in the field we are catching up on.”

Barriers to change

“You can have your transformation ambitions and all the technology in place but actually overcoming the cultural barriers so you can move the needle across the business can be a big challenge.”

Gavin Geekie, Salesforce Industries

If the gains of the past year aren’t to be put at risk, companies must seek to sustain the momentum and relentless focus on the CX. Gavin Geekie, Regional Vice President, Energy and Utilities at Salesforce Industries, pointed out that companies can have their transformation ambitions and all the technology in place but “actually overcoming the cultural barriers so you can move the needle across the business can be a big challenge.”

Many participant agreed with this. “Change management is absolutely key,” said one. Others pointed out the importance of granular metrics that can really highlight what’s working, and what isn’t while some stressed the importance of keeping it simple and doing the basics right.

“Transformation in CX for us is eliminating the need for the customer to contact us in the first place,” said one industry executive. “We’re not a sexy business, like an Amazon or a Virgin Media, customers don’t really want to talk to us. We supply gas and electricity and that’s what we need to do well.”

Change on the horizon

“Not many consumers understand the scale of change”

While the pandemic continues to change our lives in previously unimaginable ways, our participants agreed it’s the decarbonisation agenda that is the biggest challenge on the horizon. “Not many consumers understand the scale of change for the energy sector,” said one. “As natural gas boilers are phased out in the 2030s, nobody really knows what will happen and what technologies will dominate. It’s just not in the public consciousness and it will probably all happen in the last five years very quickly and painfully.”

Others noted “emerging customer curiosity about Net Zero. “There are the beginnings of a discussion about what it means and what the future will look like,” said one.

Another big change looming on the horizon is the workforce of the future. “The next generation workforce will be more digitally and socially apt but will they be more emotionally intelligent apt?” asked one participant. “We need to have both sets of skills along with problem solving and good judgment.”

“Emotional intelligence is so important. As automation takes more of the quick fixes, the calls that get through will be the high value emotive calls”

Nick Kelly, Smart Communications

“Emotional intelligence is so important,” agreed Nick Kelly of Smart Communications. “As automation takes more of the quick fixes, the calls that get through will be the high value emotive calls that the customer really needs to make. Getting this right and handling it with empathy will be what the customer remembers.”

It was an interesting and thought-provoking debate, with participants bonding over shared experiences and swapping best practice and experiences. As the pandemic continues to impact our lives, heaping pressure on finances and ramping expectations, it’s no doubt a topic that industry executives will want to return to again and again.