The journey from being an engineering and infrastructure management business to becoming a consumer brand (or at least behaving like one) is a difficult one.

As the latest customer complaints figures on the water industry show, simply ensuring supply and sending out bills is not enough. Nor is it enough to rely on rebrands and charming brand marketing campaigns.

In fact, campaigns can often exacerbate the problem and provide ammunition to consumers looking to complain.

There are a number of UK utilities that have been heavily criticised by governments, and satirised in the media for saying one thing and being another.

In the UK, utility providers have been fined in recent years by their regulators for failing to bill their customers on time (or at all), not setting customers up with the lowest tariff when they were required to do so, causing a major sewage leak, and repeated pollution leaks.

Each of these businesses had, in the same years, emphasised their customer focus in their brand marketing and advertising campaigns.

So why is it so hard to reduce the number of complaints? And how can a creative and purposeful Customer Experience design focus within these businesses make a difference?

Businesses have operated as though the consumer was the meter, not the person

Both energy and water retailers have a history of seeing the property rather than the person as the consumer of the supply. However, it’s a person that has to pay the bill and it’s this person that companies need to build a working relationship with – one focused on helping them to help the business.

We’re a much more mobile society, particularly the young, and keeping track of who is responsible for paying the bill is increasingly difficult. This mobility confounds the way these industries were set-up and results in frequent miss-billing, further undermining trust.

Landlords and property businesses that pay bills on several meters have an experience of their supplier that is far from joined-up.

Engine has worked with a number of utility businesses specifically to redesign the “I move” journey and to develop new service features that encourage the kinds of behaviours that help maintain customer databases and reduce process errors that lead to poor customer experiences.

We’ve worked with companies to imagine how mobile apps can be used as a way to start and maintain a relationship with a ‘person’ rather than a ‘property’ – over the long term, even when that customer leaves and comes back. Perhaps the ideal response is to push for each of us to have a Power and Water Account which would remain ours ‘for life’ and which we’d associate with a new meter as we moved home.

People don’t know or don’t care

It’s certainly true that there are more important things in life than thinking about your energy or water supply. For most people, it’s right down there with pension planning.

Until of course, it goes wrong – and this is when service really matters. That many of us don’t care makes things hard enough for utility companies when it comes to winning and keeping customers.

What makes it even more difficult is that many customers actually don’t know who their supplier is and sometimes, much in the case of water, that they actually have to pay for it. In addition, those in the know, know that it’s incredibly hard for companies to cut-off supply and this leads to apathy and avoidance which has implications when companies seek payments, often from the next resident in the property.

We’d suggest that utilities develop services and partnerships with other businesses, for example, Rightmove, Zoopla, Zipvan, and design ‘I join’ and ‘I move’ deeper into the experience of moving home.

We’d also like to see customer sign-up and switch being part of the responsibility of letting agents and conveyancing solicitors. Ideas like these could be system-wide, but even without regulatory change individual companies can be more experimental in addressing the customer experience traps that result from historical industry models.

It’s a system run on estimated consumption

Human behaviour again confounds the industry and in turn, causes a poor experience for customers. Many of us don’t submit meter readings and the new levels of mobility we highlighted earlier compound this problem.

Smart energy and water metering will help, but not reliably in the short-term and not for all until new technologies appear. New-build homes may have water and energy meters accessible from the outside but what about the rest?

Despite these system advances, many customer accounts are assessed on estimated consumption. This ought not to be a problem if meters are physically read once in a while and adjustments made. One of the problems, however, is that energy companies in particular have built their acquisition strategies around fixed tariff products.

The Customer Experience takes a hit often as soon as the first bill because the monthly or quarterly amount that’s fixed with the customer at sign-up is based on an estimate of their future consumption.

An estimate is always going to be an estimate but are there ways (that customers too would consider valuable) to get better data from their property and from the industries’ meter readers? And could the first 90 days be considered a ‘getting to know you’ period with expectations set very differently about when the fixed price will be fixed and when it will change?

There’s been no competition in the water industry

Until recently, water companies have enjoyed monopoly of supply in their region. Although errors and complaints generate a cost which can be reduced through service design, the real incentive to consider the design of services and customer experience emerges either when companies become subject to fines for underperforming or are subject to genuine competition.

The energy industry has had a head start and competition remains fierce as company’s obligations and pressure to lower prices increase. For domestic water, now is the time to consider the commercial advantages of becoming a customer-centred business and, like the energy companies, building a capability in service and customer experience design.

So, how can you make the case for a creative and purposeful approach to Customer Experience design?

  • If you view your service and customers’ journeys through their eyes you’re more likely to spot things they’ll value and value you for.
  • When you design with the diverse needs of customers in mind it results in a better solution for everybody.
  • If businesses need to make changes that could have a negative impact for customers then, with genuine insight and empathy, it’s possible to spot how to mitigate that impact and even turn what could be a negative into a positive.
  • Being inspired by your customers and where you fit into their lives helps you to spot new opportunities to use technology.
  • When you get the experience right for customers and you can anticipate the problems they might have, you make life easier for your frontline colleagues too.
  • If you design services and solutions that are easy for customers to use they will naturally do more for themselves, which reduces your costs.
  • If it works seamlessly for customers most of the time they will be more tolerant when things go wrong.
  • If you can get the core experience right, customers will be more open to paying for other things.

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About The Author

The Co-Founder of Engine Service Design

Joe Heapy is the co-founder of Engine Service Design and is an advocate of the social value of design improving peoples’ lives. Engine was founded in London in 2000 and has an international studio in Dubai, UAE. Joe has worked with large and medium-sized global corporations all over the world who want to use design to create and deploy valuable, enhanced services and memorable, high-performing omnichannel customer experiences. An Honorary Professor of Design at Glasgow School of Art and a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art in London, he collaborated with Demos in 2006 to research and publish The Journey to the Interface, a book about user-centred approaches to service design.