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How can the water sector climb up the customer satisfaction rankings?

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Echo's MD, Monica Mackintosh, shares her thoughts on the July 2019 UK Customer Satisfaction Index and what the water sector, in particular, can do to improve its position.

What can the UK's water companies take from the latest ICS UK Customer Service Index? Unfortunately, it’s not a hugely positive picture.

A decline in overall customer satisfaction is clearly apparent, with the water sector recording a drop of 1.7 points year-on-year. Of the 13 sectors included, only the energy sector saw a bigger dip, at 3 points overall.

There were however some positives. Four water companies increased their overall scores, and three outperformed the all-sector average. Northumbrian Water, Scottish Water and Welsh Water, in particular should be commended. Satisfaction with complaint handling in the water sector has also continued to improve and outperform the UK all-sector average scores across the four measures in the index.

However, water still recorded a drop across most experience measures, including right first time, and the percentage of customers actually experiencing a problem. Meanwhile, for eight water companies customer satisfaction ratings dropped by 2 points or more.

So, what do the latest findings tell us about customers and areas for improvement?

Engaging Generation Z

One interesting factor to emerge from the report is that in water – as in all sectors – overall satisfaction is lowest amongst customers in the 18-24 age band. Forward-thinking and strategic companies, then, should be thinking about how to future-proof their customer service for the next generation. How are younger people’s expectations of customer service different to those of earlier generations? How can water companies better engage and satisfy these younger customers?

There's been plenty of research around the behaviours and expectations of the tech-savvy post-millennial cohort. This has tended to highlight a focus on mobility and convenience, and on transparency, honesty and a sense of responsibility from even the largest organisations. Water companies should think carefully about how they can bring convenience and openness to their customer service strategies.

An app-ortunity

One path to greater engagement could be to innovate further with digital channel such as mobile apps. Mobile technology is an everyday part of today’s connected consumer life, and so apps can offer far greater convenience. The UKCSI figures show, for example, that 9.9% of all banking customer experiences were conducted via an app – the highest of any sector by some stretch – and where customers use an app to interact; this results in higher than average customer satisfaction.

Yet in the water sector, app usage languishes behind the all-sector average (3%) at 0.9%. This is a clear engagement opportunity. Purpose and design are, of course, crucial to enable a meaningful and effortless experience for customers but, done well, apps can both build brand recognition and improve customer engagement. A key challenge however, will be around keeping customers, many of whom do not have the need to interact regularly with their water company, engaged in an app that absolutely needs to be personally relevant and useful.

Support for those in need

The UKCSI highlights some interesting findings around customer satisfaction for those customers who deal with an organisation at a difficult personal time. Highly satisfied customers who are going through difficulties, for example, tend to express stronger levels of trust than equally satisfied customers who are not. Overall, the indications are that positive and negative experiences are both amplified when an individual is going through difficult circumstances, and that customers going through a range of difficulties are likely to respond particularly negatively to poor customer service.

Therefore, reassurance and empathy are crucial. At a time when interactions are becoming more digital, soft skills and emotional intelligence training for customer-facing teams must remain a priority to ensure service is both inclusive and supportive for all.

Promises must be kept

Reliability and transparency are vital qualities for any water company – and this means keeping promises. The UKCSI found that problems associated with organisations not keeping their promises rose from 5.3% to a hefty 17.3% year-on-year, across all sectors. For the water sector, only five out of the 16 water companies included in the index achieved a score at or above the UK all-sector average for keeping their promises to customers.

Closing the gap between promise and delivery should be an ongoing focus area for water companies, given the strong link to trust. More proactive and transparent communication can help to manage customer expectations and build trust when things don’t go to plan.

A time for change

The great performance of some water companies tells us that it isn’t a foregone conclusion for the water sector to remain at the bottom of the UKCSI rankings. Change is absolutely possible and a consistent, quality experience tailored to customers’ needs can and does drive improvement. Jo Causon, CEO of the ICS, perhaps puts it best when she says that ‘customer service excellence is the tangible expression of an organisation’s culture’.

It’s never been more important as a sector for us to continue to drive change in our culture to realise the results we are all looking for.

Monica.

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