By Annie Hall, Marketing Specialist
Learning from other sectors is a fundamental part of WSUP’s approach. We bring together experiences from civil society, academia, and the private sector.
In fact, it was WSUP’s interest in the role of the private sector, and the drive to understand low-income consumer needs, that convinced me to make the leap from a career in corporate marketing and creative advertising agencies.
In previous roles, I’ve worked on projects to improve the customer service experience in sectors from energy and pharmaceuticals, to luxury jewellery and technology. However, trying to apply this in a developing market context hasn’t been easy.
I have had to adapt familiar theories, models, and best practice assumptions to account for technology limitations, business maturity, and unique pressures faced by the utilities we work with. Nonetheless, I still look to international industry leaders for inspiration from time-to-time.
In this blog, I share a snapshot of a recent customer experience of my own. This year, I switched to Octopus Energy, a relatively new UK based company that has attracted press attention for their numerous industry awards, and impressive customer service commitments.
From my first interaction, to the regular billing and metering communications I receive now, I have been impressed by their clarity, consistency, and creativity in keeping me engaged. It led me to reflect on what WASH institutions can learn from other utility brands and which, if any, of their customer engagement techniques can be replicated by water service providers in sub-Saharan Africa.
The onboarding process
The onboarding process refers to every interaction a customer has getting set up with a company. For a utility provider this may include the initial customer application and confirmation of when the connection will take place, through to being issued an account number, the first meter reading and delivery of the first bill.
This critical process is where first impressions are formed and it has the potential to disappoint, confuse, frustrate, and leave customers worried that they’ve made the wrong choice.
My onboarding process with Octopus commenced with an immediate email, thanking me for choosing them. I was given a clear and detailed summary of the key information and could see when my supply would start. I was even able to change this with a single click. The email confirmed my payment amount and indicated when to expect the first bill and all subsequent payments.
It’s important to acknowledge the ability to provide such an efficient switching service was heavily enabled by action taken by the UK regulator Ofgem back in 2014 when they radically modernised the switching process to benefit customers.
Regulator engagement forms a core part of WSUP’s work in the WASH sector. Active, informed, and empowered regulation authorities help to drive competitive innovation within industries, which is why it’s so important that a customer-centric mindset is championed by the regulators. WSUP must often encourage the utilities to go above and beyond the minimum standards set by the regulator, whilst supporting the regulator to raise the stakes in parallel.
My welcome email also included a personalised note, with a useful tip regarding how to identify emails that require action from me, versus emails I can read at my leisure.
This email was shortly followed by another, from the company CEO, telling me more about the company’s mission and values and invited me to learn more about how my purchase decision contributes to their greener energy initiative.
Throughout the process I did not have to seek out any information. I was sent regular updates, billing reminders and felt informed, valued, and convinced that I’d made a good choice, not just for me – but for the planet too it seemed!
By contrast, customers seeking a household water connection in a peri-urban area of sub-Saharan Africa can wait several weeks after paying an initial deposit before they see any activity from the service provider. Lengthy processes involving approvals with local councils and sourcing of infrastructure materials mean the customer is left chasing for updates, often queuing at the utility office.
This period spent out of pocket and out of the loop makes customers distrust water utilities. Many of the utilities we work with miss opportunities to proactively keep customers informed. They could engage customers in their wider vision for healthier communities and add a personal touch to communications simply and cheaply.
Meter readings and bills
Like most utilities, my energy provider requires me to submit regular and timely meter readings – a task no one enjoys! It interrupts your day, and often involves accessing a meter hidden somewhere outside the home. So, Octopus incentivises this in two ways.
Firstly, I can access an online platform to submit my readings on a laptop or mobile in less than three clicks. There are step-by-step instructions to remind me how, and my previous submission is displayed to help me notice any anomalies.
Secondly, every time I submit a meter reading, I have the option to play a virtual wheel of fortune. An animation simulates a game-of-chance, where I can win money off my next bill. I’ve not won anything yet, but I keep playing (and keep submitting my readings) regardless!
It almost doesn’t matter what Octopus has created to pique my interest. The point is, they’ve recognised the effort required of customers to facilitate the billing process and have attempted to make it easier and more enjoyable. WSUP conducts customer journey mapping exercises with utilities to help them identify where their business operations inconvenience customers and try to encourage them to think of their own ways to ease the burden.
It’s all in the mindset
Is it reasonable to expect a small regional water utility in sub-Saharan Africa to deliver a customer experience like mine? No, not yet. But there are there lessons we can learn from other sectors about how to prioritise customer experience within organisational structures and processes.
When talking to Utility Week, Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, marketing and product director at Octopus Energy said, “It’s everyone’s job to do customer engagement.” Rebecca explained how staff training, performance measurement and even where they sit in the office, is built around delivering the best customer experience.
She also talked about how their systems are set up to facilitate individual customers being repeatedly routed to the same six to eight staff members, leading to greater personalisation and accountability. Staff aren’t measured on call handling times because they want staff to give customers the time they need.
Some observers are sceptical about whether Octopus can maintain this high-quality service experience as the customer base grows. However, an attitude of continual learning and improvement seems to be the status quo. “As we keep growing, we need to continue to get better. That’s the biggest challenge, continuing to put pressure on yourself to keep making things better as you scale,” said Rebecca.
It’s not as simple as “build it and they will come”
This is important because building the necessary infrastructure is only part of what is required to bring sustainable water and sanitation services to poorest and most vulnerable urban communities.
Utilities need to continuously work at creating and sustaining demand for their services. When designing business models for low-come consumers, it’s important to remember that ability to pay and willingness to pay are not the same thing. Willingness to pay is driven by a perception of value and like any other customer, low-income customers expect and deserve service experiences deemed worthy of their hard-earned .
Investments in customer experience don’t have to be radical, expensive or underpinned by major technological advancement (although that helps). Often the utilities we work with just need to spend more time putting themselves in the customers’ shoes.
They need to think strategically about the customer communications plan, map key customer journeys and identify where an extra SMS update, a personalised bill communication, a targeted public announcement or a more friendly customer service interaction, might help to transform how customers perceive their service as well as how valued they feel.
If you’re interested in learning more about Octopus energy and how they’re disrupting the UK market with their unique approach to managing customer relationships, check out some of the links below: