Utilities, bills and empathy: How CX tech can help

27 March 2024

Richard HigginBotham

by Richard Higginbotham

Delivering good customer service in the utilities sector has become more challenging as many people struggle with the cost of living. But, technology can help brands to become more empathetic and improve customer experience.

Just over 40% of energy bill payers are struggling to afford payments, according to recent Office for National Statistics. Meanwhile, another study revealed that close to a quarter of customers were having difficulty meeting their water bills.

Concern is growing within the industry. For example, energy regulator Ofgem is consulting on plans to protect the energy market and consumers from the growing risk of ‘bad debt’ – money which is unlikely to be repaid.

So how can utilities companies find new ways to improve customer care and support people during tougher times?

Technology can’t fix the problem. But it can help to alleviate stress and enable companies to intervene early. Innovation can help providers to enhance their care significantly without hiring lots of extra staff.

Here are three ways to improve outcomes:

1. Getting an early heads-up

Rather than escalating engagement when bills are long overdue, utilities can act earlier to identify customers who might need extra help. It’s possible to connect billing, customer relationship management (CRM) and other back-end systems – and see behaviour patterns using artificial intelligence.

For example, does Customer A routinely provide water readings and this has stopped completely? Has Customer B significantly cut back on their energy usage – even during a cold snap?  Does customer C check their online accounts normally and has this changed significantly? It could be a sign that they are suffering in silence. Behavioural indicators can add greater nuance and understanding to data about payments.

A customer experience (CX) platform that’s infused with AI will help you to identify and segment customers for potential help.

2. Reaching out in the right way

When customers are at risk of debt, you may have schemes to help. But it’s easy to overload people with a blizzard of emails, texts or leaflets. This may create confusion and a stress of its own, as customers struggle to figure out whether they qualify.

One option would be to create a mobile app that asks simple questions and then clearly identifies the help available. Maybe people are eligible for discounts, capped bills or financial support schemes and hardship funds? Perhaps a tariff switch or debt advice is their best option?

The mobile app could be mirrored by a website assistant or a friendly and empathetic-sounding IVR guide, so customers can use their channel of choice. It’s important to allow customers to use the service anonymously – but give them the opportunity to speak to someone at the end if they wish.

The latest low-code technology means that customer services teams can build apps like these themselves, quickly and for little cost.

3. Understanding sentiment

CX platforms with infused AI can read between the lines, analysing customer conversations and revealing sentiment. This could relate to keywords or phrases that appear in calls, emails or chat transcripts.

At an individual level, this can tell you more about the customer’s needs and how well your team member guided the interaction. You’ll better understand the words used and interpret the emotional undertones. These may indicate a particular frustration, misunderstanding, or point to an error with your own systems. Health challenges, bereavement or other issues may become apparent.

By understanding sentiment, you’ll be better placed to engage and support the customer.

At a broader level, you can see how keywords and sentiment are being expressed across all of your interactions. This insight may lead you to offer new support services to customers, improve existing ones and enhance training in specific areas.

Improve your care, quickly and easily

Utilities companies can better support customers with debt issues by using smart CX platforms. You can take advantage of simpler data integration, infused AI, low-code application development and other new tools.

It’s quick and simple to deliver change. Customer services teams without programming skills can develop apps and other services yourself using intuitive interfaces, simple logic workflows and drag-and-drop tools.

The result? You can create customer-centric support that’s relevant, empathetic and genuinely helpful at a time of stress for a significant number of your customers.

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