Designing customer experiences for utilities

Utility companies face issues of customer experience that are inherent to ‘on-tap’ commodity services. They are often unable to provide the transparency for customers whose expectations of interaction are set by customer-centric digital businesses.

In working with an energy supplier, our team at Friday used real data and a pertinent human user story — a customer’s struggle to buy energy using a prepayment card over Christmas — to illustrate customer need in a way all the business stakeholders could understand and look for shared solutions to.

The pressure to improve customer experience

The retail energy sector is complex and customers are at best indifferent, at worst hostile. In the popular conscious, energy companies are rapacious profit-takers; bills are a necessary evil, akin to paying tax.

It’s fair to say that energy suppliers face big pressure to improve their customer experience. Especially as digitally-savvy market entrants offer consumer-facing energy-management services based on smart metering and internet-of-things technologies, free of the legacy issues inherent to established energy suppliers.

The need to ask the right question

Working with our clients on improving their customer experience, we observed that they were constrained by internal thinking. Despite repeated attempts, they have been unable to express a direct relationship between real-time energy use and payment in language that can be understood easily by consumers.

Consumers think in terms of financial outlay; energy companies speak in kilowatt-hours (kWh) consumed. Therefore, suppliers’ bland reassurance that smart meters “will help customers save energy”, is the answer to the wrong question. Most consumers don’t care about energy consumption; they want to exercise financial control.

The potential of utilising user stories

We worked on identifying and articulating possible customer experience directions through workshops and prototyping. Instead of trying to simplify existing tariffs, we started with real consumption data and over-layed realistic account balance scenarios.

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Our modelling showed that the average payment card customer, who tops up their account by £30 at a time, would have to top up their account on 22 December, Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve due to the adverse weather in the year the data was from.

This emotive human story brought otherwise disparate teams from the supplier together. A customer’s struggle to afford energy top-ups at Christmas resonated with the stakeholders in a way that other analyses hadn’t.

A common understanding of the customer journey was essential for creating a prototype, highlighting the gaps in the supplier’s systems which prevented them from offering a desirable customer experience.

Instead of delivering meaningless data, or creating infographics of consumption, we created simple messages about how much a customer owed and would owe.

Using data as a foundation and human stories as a way of articulating and prioritising customer need we were able to rapidly produce a prototype as an illustration of a future customer experience to help flush out the complexity in the technology and processes needed to support the future experience.

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The power of putting the customer first

Undoubtedly, energy suppliers operate in a highly complex market, notwithstanding the legacy complexities of their own organisations. Organisational complexity, whether from internal or external forces (or both), demands simplicity of perspective.

What does the customer want? Not more data, which creates confusion, but control over the parameters that count. In the case of energy supply, they wanted control over real-time expenditure. If utility suppliers are to elevate themselves above the level of dumb pipe or necessary evil, then they owe consumers more consideration of their perspective.

We’d love to talk to you about whether your digital services truly respond to customer needs and give you the competitive advantage they should. Get in touch.