How tech can help to ease cost-of-living stress for utilities customers

12th June 2024

Richard HigginBotham

by Richard Higginbotham

Is it possible for utilities companies to pursue digital-first customer service – while also providing empathetic support for people struggling with the cost of living? Fortunately, there’s a way to meet both objectives.

The cost of living continues to impact adults in the UK: 28% are not coping financially or finding it difficult, according to research published earlier this year by the Financial Conduct Authority. Some 7.4 million (14%) felt heavily burdened by their domestic bills and credit commitments.

Keenly aware of the issues, Utility Week has arranged its Consumer Vulnerability & Debt Conference in September. It recognises that customers and the utility industry continue to be affected by affordability. “While energy prices are decreasing in 2024, water bills are increasing by 6% and the cost of living remains high, bringing new customers into debt alongside those struggling with affordability,” it notes.

Put simply, utilities companies need to find strategies to support customers in a fair, compassionate and accessible way.

A digital-first approach

At the same time, companies mustn’t be deterred from a digital-first approach to customer support. This will help with driving up efficiency and capacity, while minimising costs. In fact, transformation will ultimately help to keep bills lower, thanks to reduced overall costs.

However, potential for a clash exists.

Imagine if an anxious, cash-strapped customer meets an impersonal, highly-automated digital service that can’t understand them or offer the right type of help?

Most likely, the person tries a few times, feels like they’re going around in circles and then gives up. From here, there’s the danger they feel hopeless, withdraw from any interaction, their financial plight worsens and this become more complex and costly for the utilities company to resolve.

This raises the question: Is empathetic, excellent customer service achievable alongside the roll-out of advanced digital solutions? The answer is Yes.

‘Human-in-the-loop’ options

A unified customer engagement platform can bridge the gap between leading-edge digital solutions and personal interaction. But it’s essential that ‘human-in-the-loop’ options are available at key moments.

Here’s how this can work:

  • Customers are offered the full range of contact channels. Some may choose to speak at length with the customer service team right away, while others may prefer an arm’s distance web chat. A number may want to find solutions themselves without speaking to anyone – via an app, website, chatbot or IVR.
  • Each contact channel should offer a seamless hand-off to a member of the customer services team – if the customer decides they want to talk to someone. The conversation could be via voice or chat.
  • The platform remembers the customer. They don’t have to identify themselves and explain their financial issues repeatedly if they move between channels or call again. Contact centre teams are provided with a complete and contextual view of the customer, allowing them to provide the right level of empathy and sensitivity at every stage.
  • Help packages are available all in one place. Perhaps a tariff switch or debt advice is the customer’s best option? Alternatively, they may be eligible for discounts, capped bills, financial support schemes or hardship funds. These options could be navigable via an app, easily accessible on the website, or talked through in a conversation with a representative.

Achieving excellent customer service

The best automation and digital engagement platforms will allow you to balance digital transformation with human empathy. Your team will understand your customers best of all. So, it makes perfect sense for them to define the customer journey – and identify the best points where you should offer personal support.

You can then use robotic process automation (RPA) to connect data sources and get the full picture of each customer. It’s also possible to harness AI to uncover sentiment across interactions – and understand customer needs better for the future fine-tuning of services.

Significantly, low-code tools enable your customer service team to shape contact channels and services themselves. You don’t need to spend a fortune on outside developers or consultants. Your team can develop apps and other services using intuitive interfaces, simple logic workflows and drag-and-drop tools.

For example, UK Power Networks has transformed digital services for customers, including for people classed as vulnerable. Meanwhile, organisations in other sectors – such as NHS providers – have made huge advances in engaging better with people while saving money.

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