With the rise of price comparison websites and automatic switching services it’s becoming easier and easier to change energy suppliers. In 2017 the highest number of customers for almost a decade switched: that’s 5.1 million electricity and 4.1 million gas customers. One in five UK customers chose a smaller energy provider rather than one of the Big Six, perhaps fuelled by a wish to make greener choices.  By 2020 people should be able to switch in a day as Ofgem improves data systems.

This is great news for customers but challenging for energy companies. So, what can they do to keep their current customers sweet? Particularly when most people aren’t particularly engaged with their provider, even though it’s it an essential service.

Be smarter with data to provide personalised experiences
Personas are no longer enough. Tomorrow’s energy suppliers need to build out from them to better understand the behaviour of individual customers. By combining basic information with behavioural science they can gain more of an understanding into what makes each person tick. This will allow them to provide personalised offerings: the lowest possible energy prices for one, service bundles for another, green choices for a third. It should be possible to predict their behaviour, picking out not only times when customers might be vulnerable to switching, but also when they might be most likely to buy a new product or service. Techniques like trigger-based marketing – e.g. contacting a customer with an offer after they’ve viewed a web page – can yield results, but it’s worth remembering that repetitive sales messages can be annoying, even creepy, if they become intrusive.

Respond to the conscious consumer
Awareness of climate change and other environmental issues is at an all-time high. So how do the Big Six fair on environmentally responsible choices? Eon’s residential customers are promised 100% renewable energy; the company also offers solar panels and air source heat pumps, one of the most likely choices to replace gas boilers as the latter are phased out over the next decade or so. npower’s Go Green tariff will offset your gas and electricity making it carbon neutral. The rest of the Big Six should carefully consider how they can appeal to customers who might be tempted to move to one of the new breed of green energy suppliers. Particularly as some of the latter also score highly for customer service, with Octopus Energy topping a survey for Which? as well as coming joint top with Zog Energy in a poll for Money Saving Expert. Energy suppliers should of course also be sensitive to accusations of ‘greenwash’; a genuine wish to align their business to responsible environmental goals is what many conscious consumers will be looking for.

Create customer service that works
We’ve all been there. After scrolling through a bunch of irrelevant FAQs you reach the holy grail of Live Chat. You give your name, postcode, first line of address, date of birth and favourite pet. You explain the problem. The advisor replies back with a scripted answer to a different issue. After several back-and-forths they give you a phone number to call. You provide all your personal info once more, then wait on the phone through 10 minutes of muzak before the line is cut off. You try again, this time choosing the ‘text for help’ option. You re-supply your information. Tumbleweeds roll by. Eventually you get a response, after re-explaining the problem. ‘We’ll pass your issue on to the team’.

Customers no longer rely purely on call centres, but let’s face it, service hasn’t necessarily improved as a result. There’s nothing that makes you feel more like switching to that nice little 100% renewable energy company that gets 5 stars in surveys than getting irritated by your current supplier’s lack-of customer service. Utilities should remember that live chat or other service options will not help retain customers unless it works. A 2017 study by Jaywing found that 73% of telecommunications and utilities marketers say that improving their customer contact strategy as the top priority for data-driven marketing, so let’s all hope we’ll see improvements.

Become a trusted advisor
Getting good advice and gaining confidence around energy issues is likely to become more and more important to customers over the next few years as prices rise and the need to reduce CO2 emissions grows. And customers seem to be open to getting advice, a survey by Enervee found that 80% of respondents think their energy supplier is crucial in helping them make better choices. But there is clearly work still to do, for instance PwC believe that many people don’t understand the range of smart energy products available, or what they can do to reduce energy bills and ease their busy lives. Changes like the phasing out of gas boilers means people will have to make new choices and get to grips with unfamiliar technologies in order to heat their homes. Offering clear, credible advice will create a better relationship between supplier and customer – and they’re far more likely to stick around if they feel that their utility is on their side, saving them money and guiding them towards the right choices for their budget, home and lifestyle.

Give customers what they want
It’s probably the biggest challenge facing utilities. What do customers really want from their energy suppliers? The truth is that many customers don’t see the point in a lot of interaction, they just want low bills, good customer service and – for some – a feeling that they’re making a responsible choice. So far, rather than become a ‘dumb pipe’ the Big Six have responded by becoming more than just an energy supplier, moving into many other home-related services: insurance, repairs, smart products, even electric cars. But in this, as in many other sectors, the future will belong to those companies who can nail an exceptional customer experience. Given that they’re likely to be competing, not just with each other but with the likes of Google in the future – who have already launched a UK solar power initiative in partnership with Eon – the challenges are immense. Energy companies need to get ahead in terms of customer behaviours and trends if they are to design the joined-up frictionless services that consumers have become accustomed to from the tech giants.

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