By Lorine Arodi, Business Development Lead, Kenya
Opinions formed at the point of purchase are not fixed. Customers continually re-evaluate the value of the products and services they buy against the experience they receive, which is why companies must invest time and resources in continuing to satisfy customer experience expectations.
Customer experience is the subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company. Customer experience is defined by every interaction a customer has with both the product and people associated with a company. It is best thought of as the impression made on a customer, which impacts how they think and behave towards the brand.
All customers, including low-income customers, look for high-quality products and services at an optimal price and therefore may pay more for the same products and services if they feel the companies are providing additional value through their service-based interactions.
WSUP has been working closely with five utilities across Kenya to improve their supply service and encourage greater customer focus, for the following reasons:
1) Pressure from the regulator – Regulator WASREB has created guidelines on consumer engagements to incentivise service providers to improve customer relationships. Guidelines include recommendations for regular customer satisfaction surveys that often expose customer expectations that the utility doesn’t know how to fulfil.
2) Customer complaints – A rising number of complaints, especially on social media, have begun to negatively impact on the brand image of utilities. Pressure to respond is also a drain on staff resource and morale.
3) Customer expectations being set outside the sector – Customers believe that service provision should be on par across businesses in different industries. For instance, if a customer experiences a swift response to a billing query from their mobile phone provider, they will expect the same experience from their water utility.
4) The cost of poor retention – Customers that regularly default on bills, return to illegal connections, or are disconnected are extremely costly to the utility. Customers who churn require further marketing resource to reconnect them and represent months of potential lost billing in the meantime. This negatively impacts return from the initial investment in demand creation, and on wider network extension investments too.
5) More effective marketing – A positive customer experience leads to customer satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy. A satisfied customer is more likely to refer new customers.
As a Business Development Lead, I have participated in many strategy meetings with utilities and witnessed them discuss customer experience issues. Often representatives across the organisation have opinions but no one seems clear on who should take responsibility for this area.
In WSUP’s experience, insufficient focus on customer experience, goes hand-in-hand with a lack of a dedicated marketing function, a department responsible for communicating with prospects, customers, and other stakeholders, while creating an overarching image that represents the company in a positive light. Without a dedicated marketing function, customer communications become largely driven by commercial teams who are measured on billing revenue and growth of the customer base alone.
Promotion stimulates demand, which brings customers on board, but without communications strategies focused on retention and maximising the customer experience, these customers become dissatisfied and may look for other options.
WSUP is supporting water service providers to strengthen their service delivery to low income areas through provision of primary and tertiary networks and demand creation for last mile connections. In Kisumu county we supported Kisumu Water & Sanitation Company (KIWASCO) to carry out one-to-one engagements with customers through door to door sensitisations, consumer education, landlord and tenant forums and the use of communication and visibility materials.
This resulted in additional demand creation, with 720 households enrolling for water connections. This significantly increased customer base and revenue collection demonstrates high demand in low income areas.
KIWASCO were keen to ensure that this success was not short-lived. They recognised that servicing low-income areas often requires a different approach and, without a dedicated function to keep abreast of customer needs and expectations, consistent billing revenue from the newly connected customer base would be under threat. As financial sustainability became compromised by late or withheld payments, theft and vandalism, it was clear that the utility needed a dedicated marketing function. Eldah Odongo, the Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications at KIWASCO outlined their approach:
“Customer service should be the norm rather than the exception…KIWASCO has fully embraced this concept and embedded it in our strategic plan and, through the recently concluded job evaluation, we have created a new Department of Corporate Affairs and Communication whose sole mandate is to ensure customer satisfaction”.
Setting up a dedicated marketing function within a utility
A dedicated marketing function requires a clear mandate and responsibility for a range of activities such as: gathering customer insights, producing a communications plan, developing product and service offerings, and strategically overseeing advertising, promotion, distribution, customer service and public relations. It should form part of the wider business strategy and not be executed as a fire fighting measure.
For a marketing function to be sustainable and ensure positive customer experience the following should be considered:
- Embedding the marketing function into the utility structure – The function must be strategically positioned within the existing utility structure to enable effective collaboration with departments such as commercial, operations and any other dedicated customer-facing teams.
- Assigning staff to spearhead the function – To ensure responsibility of the function is well managed , it’s necessary to have buy-in from the senior leadership team and a dedicated senior manager tasked with setting the vision and monitoring performance of the function.
- Reviewing job descriptions to align with the purpose of the department – Whether hiring new staff or repurposing existing teams, all job descriptions (and supporting performance appraisal metrics) should be written to align with customer-centric goals and tasks that improve communication with, and the service experience of, both prospective and existing customers.
- Allocating budget – Budget allocation as part of quarterly or annual financial planning will ensure adequate resources for customer marketing strategies, and communications efforts designed to improve to the customer service experience.
- Developing strategies to support the function – Documenting a clear strategy for the department is a great way to bring the team together under their new responsibilities and key performance measures. Commercial and customer satisfaction data, can be used to set priorities and develop a roadmap of activity for enhancing the customer experience at critical touchpoints.
A well-structured marketing function and supporting customer experience strategy will result in greater customer centricity across the organisation. This will improve the quality of service to customers leading to a positive customer experience and satisfaction. A satisfied customer is likely to pay their bills on time, and recommend the service to another person. Therefore, improvements to customer retention are crucial to support business continuity and growth.