Riding the wave of change: staying ahead of evolving customer demand
Article by Monica Mackintosh, managing director at utilities customer engagement specialist Echo Managed Services, creator of multi-utility billing software, Aptumo
In the water sector, change is all around. A combination of evolving technology, legislative changes and shifting consumer demand has created disruption in the UK water market over the past year, at possibly the greatest rate since privatisation.
As preparations continue for PR19, alongside the longer term potential of a deregulated household water market and a multi-utility world, there is a real need for water providers to move beyond simply reacting to shifting market conditions. They must now be innovative; providing forward-thinking solutions of their own.
Innovation begins inside the business, requiring the right people in place with a natural curiosity and desire to think outside of the box to develop new, disruptive solutions. However, innovation also requires collaboration and even providers with the best of intentions can be hindered by external factors – such as the software they use – that may act as an obstacle to transformation.
It’s time for providers to reduce their reliance on external providers, choosing solutions that empower them to deliver change in the areas where their customers most want to see improved levels of service.
Let’s take a closer look at where these areas might be.
Becoming truly customer-centric
Increased customer choice, greater market competition and smarter technology mean that customer expectations of their providers are higher than ever. In the deregulated non-household market customers are acutely aware of their value to their provider and are unafraid to voice their displeasure – and vote with their feet – if they believe their needs are not being met.
Open Water, while not without its teething problems – as evidenced by the 26% increase in the number of complaints submitted to the Consumer Council of Water in its first year alone – has certainly provided a real incentive for the water sector to keep customer needs firmly at front of mind. With the persistent rumblings that the household water sector may follow suit, it’s never too early for all providers to drive positive change and set a forward-thinking change agenda.
Concerningly, the utilities sector – which includes water – currently remains near the foot of the Institute of Customer Service’s most recent UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), despite an improved UKCSI score since January 2018. The Consumer Council of Water has also recently highlighted that there is still some way to go, with their annual complaint report revealing households made more than 2.1 million calls to water companies to resolve problems last year.
Furthermore, research we undertook into how to retain customers in a world of choice found that water customer satisfaction levels are still among the lowest in the UK, further evidencing the fact that there is still work to be done. The same research also found that more than a third (38%) of consumers would instantly review their supplier should the household market indeed open to competition. This highlights a real need for water providers to proactively identify and address the areas in which customers most want to see change.
Better billing is key
In terms of where water customers most desire improvement, the most recent edition of the UKCSI once again made for an interesting, albeit worrying, read. The study found that billing – as we all know, an integral customer touchpoint – is the top area in which customers want to see more being done.
This should not come as a surprise. Indeed, our recent research into better billing found that a staggering 77% of customers have experienced poor billing practices in the past. These instances of poor practice – such as needlessly complex statements, “bill shock” and inaccurate bills – are all easily fixed, and it could be argued that these are issues which shouldn’t continually reoccur in 2019.
Furthermore, customer expectations are changing. No longer satisfied with a one-size-fits-all approach, customers are demanding a more personalised bill which takes their individual requirements into account.
This is only set to continue as water companies roll out their PR19 plans, all of which will have digitisation at their core. It’s therefore time to reassess the technology, tools and software needed to implement this change – and quickly.
It’s time for technology to become a true enabler of positive change
The ethos of digital transformation initiatives is often to increase efficiency, enable agility, and improve customer experience. Unfortunately, much of the legacy technology currently used throughout the sector is not the enabler it could be, hindering the worthy efforts of many well-intentioned providers.
As shown by the findings of the UKCSI, billing is an area wherein customers clearly want to see an improvement. However, while providers may certainly want to offer an improved service in this space, many may be held back by their customer billing and CRM platforms – the technology at the heart of every provider’s billing operation. Indeed, crucial offerings such as the provision of timely, accurate bills, helpful customer service and first-time contact resolution rely heavily upon these platforms.
The majority of billing and CRM software solutions on the market, despite requiring a significant commitment in terms of cost, time and resource, require software vendor-led updates to even keep up with changing customer demands – let alone drive change of their own; and these often come at additional expense. This, simply put, is not a sustainable business model for the years ahead as both sector and customer demand continue to evolve.
There is also a real challenge in the water sector when it comes to integrating key customer-facing software – such as the aforementioned customer billing and CRM systems. Providers are currently forced to pick between onerous, complex integration processes, or a simpler solution which offers a reduced view of the customer. Both options come with a degree of compromise, and neither provide an ideal outcome.
The natural solution, therefore, seems to be finding a balance between integration complexity and detailed customer data, keeping the compromise in both areas to a minimum. But what if that doesn’t have to be the case?
Imagine a future, facilitated by innovative technology solutions, wherein providers have the 360-degree view of the customer usually associated with complex integration process – without any kind of integration required? Now that’s fresh thinking.
This “zero integration” model is only possible, however, if sector technologies move beyond working in isolation to work in partnership with complementary, native technology solutions; creating an ecosystem of ‘plug and play’ innovation. Not only does this eliminate arduous integration issues, it means that technology can be customised according to an individual provider’s own pace and changing needs – a truly scalable, future-proof solution.
It’s time to drive our own destiny
Given the ongoing customer and regulatory pressures for providers to innovate and provide best-of-class customer service, it’s vital that the sector’s relationship with technology changes. This is particularly true given that the five-year PR19 business plans submitted to Ofwat, leave little doubt that innovative technologies will be integral to success.
With this in mind, the fact that providers remain reliant upon external providers – particularly software providers, given the aforementioned need for sector software to be precisely integrated and regularly updated – is likely to prove an unsustainable business model in the coming years.
If steps are not taken to curb this reliance, providers may remain shackled to a reactive change agenda, as opposed to the proactive, forward-thinking digital transformation which will bring real change.
Simply put, it’s no longer enough to react swiftly to emerging developments in the market. Instead, water sector suppliers must look to drive their own destiny, moving beyond being led by external change to always being one step ahead, utilising innovative, agile technology and a customer-centric mindset to drive forth a new era of endless possibility.
For more information please contact:
Brodie Hayward at PR Agency One. 0161 871 9140 firstname.lastname@example.org
About Echo Managed Services
Echo Managed Services is a specialist outsourced provider of complex multi-channel customer contact services, comprehensive debt recovery solutions and the developer of the multi-utility, Salesforce-native billing software Aptumo. Echo combines best practice technology and processes with highly skilled and knowledgeable people to provide public and private sector organisations with end-to-end customer contact capabilities. For more information, visit www.echo-ms.com or follow Echo Managed Services on Twitter at @Echo_MS