Energy companies aim to improve customer relations

Energy companies are boosting their investment in customer-focused brand building initiatives over the next 12 months as they look to make people and service key differentiators in the face of impending regulation around simplified tariffs.

As government proposals to simplify tariffs take shape, firms begin customer charm offensive.

The shift builds on attempts made by UK utilities firms to get closer to consumers over the last 18 months as they look to answer critics who claim the sector is not doing enough to address complaints at a time when energy bills are increasing.

Industry observers predict this trend will increase over the next 12 months as the Government moves forward with plans to prevent energy companies from offering more than four tariffs.

SSE is leading the charge with a revamp of its customer service commitments to create a five-point customer charter. If it fails to meet the commitments, SSE will give customers £20 off their bill.

It will also use insight gained from ongoing survey of 5,000 customers to develop marketing as well as inform a repositioning campaign next year to bring the brand’s customer-focused credentials into “sharper focus.”

Will Morris, managing director of retail at SEE, told Marketing Week: “We want to consign the ‘Big Six’ to history and stand away from the negative perceptions around the group. From a marketer’s point of view it is a really interesting challenge because this is the last sector in our society where no one has really built a differentiated offer.”

Rival Npower’s new chief executive Paul Massara also pledged to make Npower the market leader in customer experience by 2015 after the firm was rated the worst energy provider in the UK for the second year running by Which? in January.

The business plans to invest £200m in a customer-service system it says will demonstrate a “single-minded focus on customers”. As part of the shift Npower plans to reveal a customer-focused marketing strategy later this year and is overhauling the customer journey across all touchpoints.

A spokeswoman for Npower, says: “There’s no point us announcing a raft of marketing activity until we’ve established the customer-journey because this is fundamentally where we want to build our communications from. The Npower business has now become a standalone, separate retail company with a single-minded focus on customers.”

Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, applauded the efforts made by the industry to improve its relationship with customer in recent months but says customers will “understandably” be suspicious of claims and pledges “they’ve heard before.”

She adds: “Energy companies need to invest in initiatives which are going to put them into direct contact with consumer more. There needs to be stronger focus on internal culture also. It’s no good simplifying bills if you aren’t getting the culture right where people feel that customers are important.”

Viewpoint – Seb Joseph

Energy companies have long been talking about the importance of customer service. It was important even before Ofgem first proposed to reform the industry but up until now firms have never really had to deliver on their declarations. The Government’s plan to ensure all households are on the cheapest gas and electricity tariffs has shifted the pressure to these brands to make sure people and better service become the crucial differentiators.

In the past energy firms have used marketing to make excuses for price hikes but have failed to truly get close to consumers. This was as much an internal culture problem as it was to do with a lack of understanding about what consumers want from their supplier. Change now appears to be coming right from the top of organisations and there is a now a lot more investment being made to make energy providers think more like retailers with customer at the core of their offering.

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