Developing a consistent multi-channel customer service is the biggest challenge facing utility companies. Investment in the right technology is crucial.

Customer experience is increasingly being identified as the main competitive differentiator for businesses but recent research shows that energy providers are consistently achieving low levels of customer satisfaction, failing customers by putting sales before customer service.

New research from the Institute of Customer Service – UK Customer Satisfaction IndexUKCSI) – which rates customer satisfaction levels in 13 sectors, showed that utilities scored lower than the UKCSI average, dropping to the bottom-performing sector.

Customers were asked to rate individual organisations they have dealt with on a range of customer service attributes or priorities such as professionalism, quality and efficiency, ease of doing business, timeliness, problem solving and complaint handling. Utilities scored their lowest score level since 2010 (71.0 out of 100).

Additional research from Which, on energy companies call waiting times, has shown that they keep customers on hold for more than 2 minutes on average when calling customer services. However, in a test of call waiting times among 16 energy companies, there was a significant disparity between the longest hold time at 17 minutes and the shortest at just four seconds, with 10 out of the 16 suppliers tested taking over two minutes to answer the phone – what is considered to be a fair benchmark.

The most significant finding from Which, was that many gas and electricity providers were slower to pick up calls from existing customers than they were to prospective ones. Of the big six energy providers (British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) all but E.ON were quicker to answer calls to its sales number than calls to its customer services.

According to the research, customers' biggest bugbears about calling energy companies’ customer services were:

  • 39% – when the phone number is not free to call

  • 31% – having to wait on hold for a long time

  • 26% – going through automated choice system before speaking to someone

  • 22% – an automated message, such as 'your call is important to us', playing while waiting

In the current economic climate, customers are being far savvier with their money, using a range of price comparison sites, which instantly help them to find the best deals to quickly and easily switch providers.

In order for utility providers to gain a competitive edge, improving customer experience across all channels is a priority. Implementing a multi-channel customer service strategy and selecting the right technology to do this is key. The benefits are two-fold; customers receive a quick, efficient and above all consistent service and organisations are able to drive better customer retention, improve operational efficiency and reduce costs.

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