Customer Shock and the Billing Experience

The billing experience is a key part of the customer life cycle and a major influencer on satisfaction and churn.
Published: Tue 29 Sep 2015

Increasingly, the utility sector has come to realise that customers want more control over their energy consumption and one of the best ways in which the utility can help with that is by providing them with the necessary tools.

For instance, an extremely high bill, often catching one by surprise and causing much anxiety, is an area where utilities can be more proactive.

Turning a negative into a positive

Opower’s recently published research, ‘Moments That Matter - Maximizing the value of customer engagement’, points to this need for the utility to intercept and assist their customers when it comes to billing because if a customer receives a high bill, and that experience is frustrating and painful, they are more likely to exhibit low satisfaction for the rest of their time as a customer.

The survey shows that 64% of the respondents said their high bills came as a surprise to them and over half said they would switch utilities as a result. Of course, it wouldn’t make business sense to simply reduce the utility bill in order to keep customers happy but it would make sense for the utility to engage with their customers better by alerting them and assisting them to control these high bills.

Utilities have the opportunity to leverage robust analytics and established communication channels to alert customers well in advance. In fact, 80% of customers in their European panel survey indicate a preference for receiving high bill alerts.

Customer experience moments like receiving a high bill (or being on track for one) represent junctures when utilities have their customers’ attention, and thus serve as critical determinants of the utility-customer relationship.

A utility’s successful performance during key moments like this has the ability to substantially change its customers’ perception of the utility. If it is a satisfying one that meets expectations, customers are probably more likely to engage more positively with their utility. If it’s unsuccessful, there is a chance that the customer will move on to a competitor.

What’s important and how big is the gap

While Opower’s research identified a set of 12 common, critical moments [see figure] in the customer lifecycle that utilities should be focused on when it comes to improving customer relationships, the Opower Consumer Insights team recommends that utilities should prioritise their investments by looking at two primary factors:

1.What moments customers care about most (importance)

2. How they feel their utilities are currently meeting their needs (satisfaction)

Utilities shouldn’t necessarily try to improve all elements of service, especially if some services are not as important to customers; instead, they should focus on the elements that customers care most about and where there is largest room for them to improve.

Opower’s analysis highlights the “gap” between customers’ expectations (importance) and utilities’ current performance levels (satisfaction). It is this gap that must be closed in order to lower switching rates.

Customers’ expectations were highest around alerts for unusual spikes in bills (80%), notices of service problems (82%), and requests for information about tariff changes (82%). At the same time, these were also among the areas in which customers felt like their utilities performed particularly poorly. For instance, only 32% were satisfied with bill alerts, 36% were satisfied about information they received on service interruptions and 40% were happy with information they received on tariff changes.

The analysis highlights the fact that utilities have work to do when it comes to addressing customer priorities across the lifecycle.

Focus on what is important and fix it quick

In order to identify the “biggest bang for the buck” investments, or areas where customer service executives should focus first, Opower’s Consumer Insights team identified interactions with the greatest potential to improve the customer experience.

For Italy and Spain, alerts to help customers understand changes in their bills — which, importantly, can improve sentiment, lower call centre volume, manage churn, and reduce cost to serve — came out at the top of the list. Consumers were also eager to have better information about service interruptions and tariff changes. On the whole, satisfaction was low and service gaps were high, so customers were focused on the basics: understanding what they’re paying and avoiding surprises.

Consumers in the UK also expressed interest in alerts for high bills and service interruptions. But, above all, they prioritized service — including access to helpful utility representatives and information about managing their energy consumption.

In every country Opower surveyed, two customer service categories, in particular, stood out as being ripe for improvement: billing and call centre operations. While the rate of satisfaction around billing-related moments is similar to the rate of satisfaction around other moments, the importance to customers is substantially higher. This suggests that investments in the billing moments will result in higher returns to satisfaction.

The customer satisfaction impact of an optimized billing experience is too large to ignore. Opower’s Consumer Insights team found that customers who receive proactive alerts for high bills — and who are not surprised — are two and a half times more likely to be loyal.

According to Bain & Company’s report, Delighting The Customer Behind The Meter, customer loyalty typically must begin with getting the basics right: seamless meter readings, correct bills and service that is timely, helpful and friendly. Building a strong relationship also depends on creating enough positive interactions to actually influence the customer’s perception. Redesigning and improving the billing episode can often be a basic fix that can set a utility apart from its competitors.

However, if the utility aims to “wow” its customers, something as simple as sending customers an SMS to warn about an upcoming high bill after a cold winter and to offer a flexible payment option might work.

To carry out these more complex customer engagement experiences, utilities such as E.ON have achieved great success by building digital trust with their customers. [Building Digital Trust Will Open Doors for Utilities.] E.ON, through Opower, offered customers access to what they called their “Saving Energy Tool Kit” experience, a web based experience which provides personalized information about power consumption, as well as neighbourhood comparisons and personalized tips on how to control energy usage.

Delivering across all channels

If utilities are to avoid a high level of switching, they have to transform themselves from energy commodity suppliers to energy service providers. The quicker they realise that consumers are at the heart of this transition the better for their future business. In fact, Opower’s white paper, The Value of the Engaged Energy Consumer, has actually put this value into real figures which will be discussed in more detail in our follow up article.

It is clear that if utilities want to be able to retain consumers — and ask more from them — utilities will need to build relationships with them. For utilities, it should be more about creating reasons to engage with customers and identifying engagement opportunities that matter most and delivering at those specific moments in ways that best address personalized customer needs.

Connecting successfully with utility customers at these critical moments — not just billing — is crucial for delivering the next-generation customer experience. It’s about the joined up experience and delivering excellent service across all the service channels.

Serving customers effectively at these make-or-break moments is indeed a make-or-break opportunity for utilities themselves, as they begin a journey from commodity suppliers to energy services providers.

Further reading

Bain & Company’s Delighting the customer behind the meter

Opower-Moments That Matter:Maximising the value of customer engagement in Europe [pdf]

Opower-The Value of the Engaged Energy Consumer