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9 ways utilities can build better customer experiences

In 2012, customer satisfaction hit rock bottom for Britain’s utilities. Years of high bills and poor service had eroded consumers’ trust in their energy companies. More and more families were switching providers. And as a result, customer service costs were headed through the roof for utilities like E.ON UK.

Anthony Ainsworth, E.ON UK’s Marketing Director, picks up the story . “As a fairly new management team, we said enough’s enough. We figuratively pushed the reset button, and we said let’s do something differently here. So we set ourselves on a path to improve customer satisfaction.” “It’s a tough game,” he’s quick to add. But a new report from IDC Energy Insights, an independent market research firm, shows just how far E.ON has come since 2012. “E.ON UK’s Net Promoter Score has improved, and the company is leading among the larger suppliers [in Britain]… [it’s] a best practice example of how a utility can transform its existing relationship with customers to improve their satisfaction and their trust in the company.” What was E.ON’s secret to success? There wasn’t just one; there were nine. And together, they represent set of critical steps that any utility — regulated or competitive — can take to dramatically elevate the customer experience.

1. Step into your customers’ shoes

Early on, E.ON assembled an independent customer council to start surfacing the sources of customers’ dissatisfaction.  It was the first utility in Britain to do so. The benefits started accruing almost immediately. To take just one example, IDC points out that “in response to the council's feedback, E.ON UK reduced its utility bills from six sheets to one sheet, which made it more legible and environmentally-friendly.” “Most importantly,” IDC continues, “the council challenged E.ON UK's top management to really transform into a customer-centric company by looking at internal processes with an outside-in perspective.”

2. Get real feedback, even if it hurts

On top of the customer council, E.ON also runs an online forum where residential and business consumers can share their thoughts — kind or otherwise — with the company. More than 28,000 people have done so, giving E.ON a clear window into the real-life experiences of its customers. Just as important, E.ON is also pulling insights from its staff. Nearly 1,300 employees participate in MySay, a research panel that’s streamlining the company’s processes from the inside.

3. Spark culture change from within

That’s not the only way E.ON engages employees. When the management team decided to hit the reset button, it made sure the whole utility hit it together — collectively committing to a customer-centric, digital-first culture where everyone works toward the same goals. Trainings, workshops, and road shows helped cement those commitments, and over time, different teams started moving into alignment and pushing E.ON forward.

4. Hire top-shelf technologists

One of the messages E.ON heard loud and clear was that their customers want helpful, intuitive online tools to manage their service. It’s a trend as true in Britain as it is elsewhere. In a global survey last year, Accenture found that “self-service now represents a key determinant of satisfaction and loyalty” for utility customers worldwide. With that in mind, E.ON has grown its digital team from eight people to 50 in just three years— assembling “a mix of parseltongue experts, marketers, project managers, deliverers, strategists, planners, and analysts [delivering] services and tools designed to make life easier for customers,” from a beautiful web portal to engaging video content.

5. Lead the smart meter conversation

Of course, it’s not enough just to build digital tools. Utilities also have to power them with data — especially the hourly or sub-hourly meter reads that, presented in the right way, can give customers the insights they need to take control of their energy use. The good news is that advanced metering infrastructure is undergoing explosive growth. In Britain alone, utilities will spend an estimated £10.9 billion installing 53 million smart meters, beginning in 2016. The bad news is that even if the data is there, consumers still aren’t sure what value it will bring. Nine in 10 customers say they want their utilities to do a better job explaining the benefits of AMI. So as part of its digital transformation, E.ON launched a campaign to do precisely that.

6. Give customers the information they want most

When you ask energy consumers what they want smart meters to accomplish, personalized help saving energy and reducing their bills clocks in at the top of the list. That’s why E.ON created the Saving Energy Toolkit in partnership with Opower — an intuitive website that gives customers the information and insights they need to take control of their energy use. In the video above, Anthony Ainsworth puts the toolkit in context. “It’s part of our drive to get customers online, help them get comfortable with that experience, and then give them the information that helps them understand and demystify the bill. The Saving Energy Toolkit brings that alive for customers. They pay no more than they need to, and hopefully they use no more than they need to.” To date, more than 1 million of E.ON’s customers have signed into the toolkit, and more than half of them have completed an online energy audit to pinpoint the greatest opportunities to reduce their bills.

7. Go all-in

E.ON couldn’t make such huge waves by dipping its toes in the water. While initiatives like the Saving Energy Toolkit started as pilots, the company committed from day one to scaling them up and reaching its entire customer base. In its report, IDC was blunt about the importance of bold action. “Stop executing isolated pilots. Test if needed, but then quickly scale up to create synergies and impact the customer base. This is the only way to really release the full benefits of customer engagement.” Good marketing helped. E.ON marshalled a media blitz over the airwaves and online to make sure customers knew about its new programs. But even more importantly, E.ON chose the right technology to support its digital transformation: a cloud-based software platform that scales fast without sacrificing flexibility and innovation.

8. Pick strategic partners

E.ON’s leadership looked far and wide before they chose a partner to build the technology they needed. They landed on Opower — a then-startup based thousands of miles away — because they saw a company that, like E.ON, champions customer experience and tech-driven innovation. There was a clear opportunity for both companies to grow together over the long haul.

9. Benchmark success with the right metrics

One of the most important strategies behind E.ON’s success is that they made decisions based on rigorous metrics and analysis — looking toward customer satisfaction, website visits, and net promoter score as a north star. As IDC notes, it’s an approach that more utilities should adopt. To transform the customer experience, energy suppliers need to “develop customer experience KPIs, in conjunction with business performance metrics, and review correlations.”

 

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