Monica Mackintosh, customer services director at utilities customer engagement specialist Echo Managed Services.
Every customer complaint is a disappointment and an indication that in some way a company has failed to live up to its customers’ expectations. It’s seen as an important customer service measure across the utilities sector; complaints volumes, speed of resolution and key complaint themes are regularly measured and publicly reported.
The results of these reports do not make the most positive reading. Ofgem’s latest customer complaints survey highlighted that 57% of customers were dissatisfied with how their complaint was handled, with Ofgem ordering 11 of the UK’s suppliers to improve how they deal with complaints.
The July 2018 ICS Customer Satisfaction Index, published by the Institute of Customer Service highlighted further concerns – 10.6% of customers claiming they’d made a complaint to their energy provider in the last three months (higher than the UK all sector average) and 51.6% of customers stated their complaint took longer to resolve than expected. The utility sector was once again among the lowest-scoring sectors for customer satisfaction, and billing was highlighted as the number one thing customers would like to see improved.
Whilst these reports give a snapshot into the state of energy customer complaints, and improving complaint handling should clearly be a priority for the sector, surely prevention is better than cure?
Customer complaints offer a valuable window into your service offering, viewed from a customer perspective and are therefore a key opportunity for service improvement; to find the issue, fix it and monitor impact.
Of course, this can be easier said than done. With a blend of people, process and technology at the heart of service, organisations may face a number of barriers when it comes to transformation. However, failing to overcome obstacles can’t continue in the long term, with energy companies needing to continually evolve and innovate in an increasingly competitive marketplace. So, what steps can be taken?
Pin-pointing the root cause
Learning from customer complaints, and taking action to make changes, all starts by identifying the root cause – or causes – of the customer’s dissatisfaction. A robust complaints database and reporting dashboard are essential resources to examine service failure themes and root cause trends, as well as revealing the cost of getting things wrong.
Naturally, this should be combined with insight from other key barometers such as customer satisfaction survey information and employee feedback, and often this holistic view will pinpoint the same themes, further validating the need for change.
However, data and insight is only of true value if it used effectively to drive change. This relies on resource, the commitment to analyse the data, and looking beyond it to uncover the real issues. Deep dive sessions can help, taking a complaint theme and bringing teams together to examine the issue from the customer viewpoint and discuss what went wrong, where and most importantly what can be changed to improve service.
A culture for change
Everyone must be on board. If the complaints department acts as, and is viewed as, a silo, achieving change can be difficult in the midst of differing department priorities, budgets and viewpoints. The customer view must be at the heart of the whole company, led from the top down. Customer experience should be viewed as the responsibility of all, and all teams should be aware of how their actions impact on the customer and customer experience. Board level steering groups can help – including representation from all areas of the organisation; resulting in joint decisions and accountability for change programmes identified through the customer complaints window.
Overcoming ineffective systems
Technology should enable innovation, great efficiency and improved service. However, many utility providers are being let down by inflexible software that is hindering their agility and customer experience aspirations.
Modernising cumbersome and outdated legacy systems is often a priority when it comes to driving proactive service change, but time, budget and resource constraints can be real barriers in achieving aspirations. Add on top of this, high profile examples of system changes that have led to increased customer complaints, and it’s clear that organisations may be cautious when investing in this area. However, given the competitive nature of the market and evolving customer expectations, it has to be time for change. The alternative is to lose the opportunity to fix root complaint causes, put in place costly work-arounds, or rely on lengthy software provider led change requests and updates.
This is especially true when it comes to billing; currently the most common reason for customer complaints. Many legacy billing and CRM systems get in the way of delivering real change and can ground even the best customer-centric improvements. This is simply not a model fit for the future.
Deploying a new-age solution, built for easy configuration and scalability, can enable and empower energy companies; growing with their ideas and supporting a culture of being ahead of the game. Implementation timeframes and risky data synchronisation processes can both be reduced by choosing best of breed native billing and CRM technology – operating from a single date store and offering a zero-integration model.
Such software has the potential to bring about real change in customer-facing operations, empowering utility providers to improve their customer journeys and reduce complaints as a result.
People – your greatest asset
Your teams, and not just frontline customer service staff, can sometimes cause customer complaints – although not always knowingly, or through any fault of their own. Whilst tone and attitude are arguably within an employee’s control and there for avoidable, knowledge and skills gaps often result from ineffective new starter programmes, failing to keep teams updated, and insufficient training and coaching support.
Investing in people, and taking the time to listen to their concerns, can support complaint reduction. Also, recognising and rewarding those who are doing well will help drive the right behaviours across your teams.
Gaining insight from employees is arguably as important as gaining insight from customers. For example, if they find a particular aspect of a customer journey troublesome, it’s likely that customers do too; involving frontline teams in customer journey workshops can really help when coming up with practical ways forward.
However, don’t forget to be inclusive in your approach. Back office teams, field based teams and outsourced partners – although not all directly customer facing – can be a cause of complaints. Although customer service might not be their direct concern, it’s vital they view customer experience as a priority to help avoid unnecessary customer dissatisfaction and potential complaints.
Finally, being honest and transparent cannot be underestimated, especially in a market in where customer choice is greater than ever and customer retention and loyalty are therefore key concerns.
A common method used internally, in employee engagement programmes, is a ‘you said, we did’ mechanism, where employee concerns are publicly acknowledged and addressed. Why not take this approach when it comes to customers, being transparent around complaint themes and how you’ve listened and changed. This lets customers know you take their views seriously and are prepared to act on their concerns.
Listen and learn
So, whilst customer complaints are unwanted, they do offer an instant view on service from the perspective of your most important stakeholder – the customer. Learning from the organisation’s mistakes can help turn disappointment into positivity; fostering a customer-led change driven agenda to drive continuous service improvement.
Of course, this is likely to involve a test-learn-implement approach – as it isn’t realistic to always expect to deliver the desired effect on the first go; keep tweaking and trying again. Ultimately, what’s important is that you listen and learn. In our experience this approach can have a huge impact on overall complaint reduction. www.echo-ms.com