Utility Week Live 2019: Our Key Takeaways

29 May 2019 - Hannah Claytor-Scott

The predominant message from Utilities Week Live 2019 hosted at Birmingham’s NEC was that change is coming faster than we think. From product and service innovations, to the way we interact with the world around us and how customers expect utilities companies to interact with us.

Ever-changing customer priorities and expectations

There was a general acknowledgement that customer expectations are continuously growing. Every improvement to service becomes the new standard and utilities companies must compete with other industries to stay ahead of the curve.

Utilities companies must adapt to changing customer needs and create new business models that will support these changes - as explored in a panel debate featuring Ripple Energy, Kiwi Power, Piclo and Drax.

To keep ahead of the curve, companies in the sector are highlighting the need to carry out continuous customer research and improvements to their services. Jodi Hamilton, Head of Marketing and Communications at Ombudsman Services drilled home the importance of carrying out customer research.

Before taking any action, a full discovery phase was implemented which included thorough customer research. This was hugely enlightening in terms of brand perception and has been invaluable for the improvement of their overly complex customer complaints journey.

Ombudsman Services continue to regularly test, research and improve the journey as a result of the insights.

We learnt that people didn’t know what an ombudsman was, they thought we were a flavour of ice cream!

Jodi Hamilton, Head of Marketing and Communications, Ombudsman Services

Human interaction has an important part to play

AI and machine learning have been poignant buzzwords within the utilities sector and more specifically, customer services. We assume these words have a strong connotation to ‘job loss’, though Nicola Sawford at Customer Whisperers says differently.

AI will be used for basic tasks and facilitating self service, but customers still wish to talk to a human when things go wrong. AI technology could instead be used for coaching and training employees in the future.

But it is not just the utilities sector honing in on human-centric experiences. Technology such as humanised IVR which aims to create a human, almost fun IVR experience to solve simple customer queries is being used in the customer service journeys for the likes of EE to build humanity into self service.

Crowd service, whereby customers are paid to answer other customer’s problems is also gaining traction and credibility. GiffGaff are successfully taking this approach and 80% of the time when contacting GiffGaff support, another customer is on the other end.

Utilities companies are becoming service-led

Utilities companies are increasingly transforming into service providers as customer experience expectations increase. For Julian Green at ServiceMax, this means shifting to supplying outcomes rather than commodities such as cost savings and supporting customer’s lifestyle objectives.

Additionally, Martin Jackson from Northumbrian Water Group spoke of the North East water company’s commitment to their local community and helping to solve problems like the digital skills gap in the North East. He believes providing services such as training for the community and running innovation hackathons helps build the values and culture of Northumbrian Water.

Building trust with customers and employees

We heard from Jon Paull, Head of Operations for CX award-winner Octopus Energy, who spoke of the importance of company culture in delivering exceptional customer experience. At Octopus, employees are empowered to have autonomy and own their actions within a no blame culture. As a result, they want to solve problems and deliver the best service for their customers.

Also key, is a CEO who isn’t detached. In fact, Octopus Energy’s CEO Greg Jackson is the second step in the customer complaints process and still replies to every complaint email he receives despite the company having grown to 700,000 customers.

Amazing service builds trust. Trust buys the right to help move customers to a greener future.

Jon Paull, Head of Operations, Octopus Energy

As our homes and lives become more connected, our ‘data points’ are continually growing and the data that utilities companies hold on us is increasing with every smart device, every charging point, every AI live chat. Customers need to trust the utilities company, and quite literally invite them into their homes so taking steps to build this trust is crucial.

Change is coming

The clean air act is is almost upon us and demand for ‘affordable’ electric vehicles are currently exceeding supply. BBC Reporter, Zoe Kleinman explained in her keynote talk that we don’t realise how fast the change is coming. People still see autonomous and driverless vehicles as a sci-fi future, but the reality is that the pace of change is only getting faster. In just a decade we saw cars replacing the horse and cart on the streets of the 1900’s; and in the present day, driverless cars are already a reality with automotive manufacturers like Tesla releasing level 3 AVs (where the driver is still required to be alert so that they can take over if required). Companies like Uber are planning to release fleets of driverless cars in London in the next 2 years - in fact they are already carrying out tests!

Utilities companies are collaborating with the automotive industry and public sector in city planning projects to manage the roll out, business model and design of electric charging points.

Final thoughts

Digital transformation in the utilities sector has been too focused on cutting costs rather than improving service. The recent price cap means that improvements not only need to create better outcomes for customers but utilities companies have also been under pressure to drive operational efficiencies which may have come at the cost of the customer experience.

It’s an exciting time for the voice of the customer in the utilities sector. New technology and product innovation will have a massive impact on the service experience, enabling seamless, omni-channel interactions. Garnter predicts that by 2020 there will be 20 billion IoT enabled devices, but how many of these initiatives will be abandoned in the near future? Carrying out the research and upfront work into the application of the right technology rather than throwing tech at the problem will be critical for customer experience success.

If you would like to find out more about how Orange Bus practices human-centred service design, please get in touch with me at hannah.claytor@orangebus.co.uk.

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