The advent of smart metering and multichannel customer services could revolutionise utilities’ strained relationships with consumers.
Both energy and water companies came under fire in the past 12 months as bills rose, services were disrupted by severe weather and surveys revealed growing distrust of the major companies.
But research carried out by Vanson Bourne on behalf of BT has revealed there is real appetite among consumers for smart services that could help to provide more transparency over billing, drive down costs and give more control to customers, particularly among younger generations.
“The conundrum of better services and lower costs is actually resolvable,” said Volker Beckers, ex-senior advisor of RWE Npower, who chaired a roundtable discussion to unveil the report. “I think the key to getting there is technology-enabled services.”
The survey of 2,000 customers involved in household decisions found that 63 per cent of customers, rising to 86 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds, would trust their supplier to remotely manage services for them – for example turning down the heating if the weather warmed up or switching off the water supply when the householder goes on holiday.
More than three-fifths of consumers (68 per cent) would be willing to pay for energy- or water-saving equipment, but 63 per cent said they would want a guarantee they could override any remote management system and 59 per cent would expect such services to be provided free of charge.
Importantly, while only 8 per cent of those 55 and over said that customer service was more important than pricing, this figure was 39 per cent among 18 to 25-year-olds with improved communications and response times, removal of effort and help tackling their carbon footprint all flagged as important.
But leveraging the ‘big data’ made available by smart metering technology requires organisations to be able to seamlessly bring up a customer’s information no matter where they contact them. BT’s 2013 Autonomous Customer survey found that 68 per cent of people expect the information they give an organisation on one channel to be available elsewhere.
“When you understand every customer is different and you’ve got the data, in the middle of all that you need to have the right platform to target individual customers,” said Rob McGinn, vice president of Energy and Infrastructure at BT Global Services.
“People like BT have made the investment on your behalf, what you are talking about is leveraging a platform that already exists.”
Vice-chairman of the Australian Customer Service Council Ben Oxford worked with BT to create a state-of-the-art multichannel customer service system in his previous role as section head for customer services at Western Power Australia, a state-owned corporation responsible for the electricity network in the country’s south west.
He found that smarter services not only improved customer satisfaction, but drove down costs despite the initial investment outlay thanks to a reduced requirement for labour.
“To respond to consumers who aren’t ringing to say thank you, you need to deploy a smart multichannel customer service system,” he said. “You need to work smarter rather than harder.”
But while technology is key to improving the standing of utility companies in the UK, CIO at Severn Trent Water Myron Hrycyk was keen to point out that it is no silver bullet.
“Technology is key, but there are other factors,” he said. “It’s about people: the person at the end of the telephone; the person responding to a tweet; the person replying to an email; that is a key skill that needs to be developed. We are well aware you can’t just throw technology at this problem.”