Utilities companies on charm offensive

The utilities sector is hoping to improve its standing in the public’s eye, with British Gas and e.on both launching initiatives to improve face-to-face communication with customers.

Gas

British Gas is creating a “Customer Panel” and inviting the public to ask questions about the way the business is run and report publicly on what they find out. The move, says British Gas, intends to put customers at the heart of its business.

As part of this strategy the energy provider is returning to the high street with the “British Gas Living Room” in a move that harks back to the days of the British Gas Showroom.

E.on, in a similar move to create a dialogue with customers, has launched a “Winter Advice Bureau” and has taken to the road in a trailer kitted out like a house.

British Gas marketing director Rick Vlemmiks says the sector faces a complex challenge as people don’t engage with energy providers until they get their bill, which they often don’t understand.

He adds that while people do care about prices, what they care about more is the lack of understanding and control over their relationship with utilities. By bringing engineers and customer services to the high streets, British Gas is engaging with customers on their terms.

“People say [about the old British Gas Showrooms] that they felt close to the brand and could come and talk to us. This is a reaction from us to let people see the business and give us a chance to explain.”

YouGov’s BrandIndex “Buzz” rating for British Gas, a measure of whether people have heard positive or negative statements about a brand, has dropped sharply in the past six months from +3.4 in early June to -7.1 on Monday (23 November).

E.on says its initiative is designed to offer a face-to-face- contact point between consumer and brand, where they can access advice about saving money and energy during the winter.

E.on head of advertising and brand strategy Catherine Wolfe says the bureau is part of a strategy to engage with consumers about issues the energy sector faces, through a variety of channels.

Eddie Stableford, group managing director of branding consultancy Bryt, says: “Utilities companies are pretty faceless, so these steps will be warmly welcomed.” But he warns that while the initiatives are good for the sector, they are unlikely to touch enough people to have a major effect.

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