Reimagining utility customer engagement in a crisis

Andrew Field, Senior Vice President at Teleperformance UK, discusses the intensifying market climate for the utility sector and how providers can best engage with distressed customers.

The unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has left utility firms grappling with the cascading impacts of an unforeseen economic downturn. Half of UK employers that have furloughed staff anticipate having to make redundancies once the scheme draws to an end next month1. This uncertainty is heightening fears that customers will struggle to pay their electricity and gas bills as income streams begin to dry up. Customers are expected to increasingly default payments on their bills, resulting in a surge of bad debt for the foreseeable future. Utility providers are now under pressure to keep household supplies uninterrupted, while going above and beyond to support those in financial hardship. With a duty to protect their customers in the midst of the uncertainty, providers are instead offering debt repayments and bill reassessments where necessary.

Typically, customers tend to only think or talk about their energy providers when they have encountered a negative experience – or none at all. Slow to make significant tracks in digital transformation, as well as developing emotional connections with their customers, energy providers are finding themselves at a crossroads – to become a disruptor, or be disrupted. They are now under pressure to retain their customer base, and must keep in step with what consumers expect from their service, beyond commodity delivery, under these extraordinary circumstances.

Changing customer behaviour

Utility customers that have been in debt for less than 28 days are entitled to the upmost additional support and reassurance from providers, and will be empowered to shop around for the best customer experience. Research finds there are three critical components to enhancing customer satisfaction for energy customers: fast issue resolution, integrating technology to make customers’ lives easier, and keeping the experience relevant.2 Having grown accustomed to on-demand technology, nearly 90 per cent of customers agree on the importance of energy providers contacting them in a way that suits them – with an emphasis on empathy. Feeding consumers’ appetite for new tech-enabled solutions, and supporting them through a blended customer contact centre, will be pivotal to retaining brand-agnostic customers.

Providing an effective crisis response

In times of crisis, customer interactions with a brand can trigger a lingering impact on their loyalty to a utility company. Those customers who have experienced a positive service experience present a 14 per cent higher loyalty intention, while those who have a bad experience have a 29 per cent lower intention3. Organisations that step up, and can create a lasting, positive memory in the minds of their customers when they are most vulnerable, are most likely to retain them long after the crisis.

A key barometer of customer care will be the speed at which complaints are attended to, and rectified after being registered. Email, text, and most prominently, chatbots, are being leveraged to communicate with consumers, to target first time delinquent customers and find out how best they can assist them through financial burden. Chatbots should be designed to be relevant at each stage of the experience, to respond appropriately to different questions. Whether customers wish to view their utilities bills or enquire about late payments, chatbots facilitate a channel for streamlined connectivity and support.

Understanding different situations and offering counsel in an industry typically plagued by frustration, will strengthen long-lasting relationships with those feeling anxious about billing and disconnected supply. To meet individual customer needs, providers should listen to their customers first and foremost, then provide an informed set of payment options and bundles, and highlight how these different choices can provide them relief. By showing an understanding of the longevity of their financial situation, and reasons for non-payment, customer agents can develop a committed level of empathy.

Energy providers will increasingly leverage data-intelligent solutions, to track the evolution of household energy demand. By using data analytics to gather insights on consumption habits, energy providers can accurately predict and manage customer needs. With just under half of utility consumers agreeing on the importance of receiving relevant recommendations4, it is essential that providers track measures – such as energy efficiency – to tailor their payment plans and energy audits, and make this information accessible on mobile apps.

The High-Tech, High-Touch approach to customer care

Now more than ever, customers are in need of reminder calls and seamless payment rearrangements to allay their concerns about collections. Providers can enable push messaging and a continuous flow of dialogue with their customers through the development of innovative apps. Apps are facilitating a 24/7 helpline, as well as a wave of nudge innovations that are gathering pace in several European countries. Notifications that tell a customer that their energy use is 20 per cent higher than the average on their street, translates as the provider having an interest in them specifically, strengthening an emotional connection.

However, these tools are only effective if they are leveraged intelligently by humans. To build trust within the fragile customer-provider relationship, companies should be unifying digital and human workforces, to make strategic decisions on when to leverage human agents to check in on certain customers. While apps can manage more general tasks, more finite decisions will need to be made by a trained human agent. Getting stuck with a bot, unable to transfer to a human agent, can be a huge source of customer dissatisfaction in the sector.

The future of the utility sector

In the new era of fast-moving digital transformation, utility companies are pursuing experience-driven strategies to assist customers during this recessionary phase, and add value to their offerings. Providing a dedicated level of support to those in financial hardship – with an emphasis on the human touch – has become pivotal to controlling customer attrition in hostile market conditions. Providers will need to do more, be more, and offer more, to redefine the customer experience and produce long-lasting emotional connections.

1 https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/half-of-employers-still-anticipate-redundancies-when-furlough-ends

2 https://www.populus.co.uk/insights/2018/05/what-do-customers-want-from-an-energy-provider/

3 https://teleperformanceblog.com/strategic-thinking/the-contact-center-managing-relationships-between-companies-and-their-customers/

4 https://www.populus.co.uk/insights/2018/05/what-do-customers-want-from-an-energy-provider/