Utilities transact with their customers all the time (touchpoints) but loyalty and trust are hard to come by. With customer experience increasingly the determinant of success, how do you build loyalty and trust and turn customer touchpoints into trustpoints, and why does it even matter?

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I often find myself quoting Harley Manning (from Forrester Research) on why companies must be obsessed with customer experience to overcome disruption. I was quoting him long before COVID-19. But never has his thesis been more true, with 2020 bringing the kind of disruption none of us had anticipated.

So where has this macro disruption left utilities, when it comes to brand promises, customer experience, loyalty and service? Answer: it leaves the floor wide open for thinking bigger. And asking: what if we could turn transactional customer interactions into a powerful route to building trust? That is, turn touchpoints into trustpoints?

Here are some practical thoughts on the road ahead for utilities leaders (hint: the CMO must be front and centre).

The status quo: utilities and customer experience

Brand trust and customer experience have not typically been core to utilities’ strategy. You could say they’ve been a side activity, rather than an essential design principle. But the stakes are changing, and utilities (as well as others) must own the experience, understand the customer, and put customer experience at the core of what they do.

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Thinking about 2020: COVID-19 has influenced trust in utilities. And it wasn’t about the brand promise, it was about the experience people have had. (Imagine you were furloughed and under financial stress, and needed to talk to your utility supplier.) What customers experienced amplified brands who understand the power of experience and the delta for trust.

Many energy providers rose to the challenge and understood what good they could do. For instance, some powered hotels for free when they were putting up key workers. And EDF in the UK repurposed maintenance vans to deliver Boots prescriptions to vulnerable customers.

From transaction to love

Historically, utilities have often had a transactional (billing only) relationship with their customers. But before this year, some utilities were already rethinking that, with varying levels of success. But some were ahead of the curve, like Electric Ireland, already being ‘brighter together’. It’s community, home, planet (with COVID-19 customer support at the forefront).

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I often like to look at other industries for examples. And Volvo springs to mind here. Traditionally the ‘all about engineering’ company, they have pivoted to a new customer model. You want a Volvo but you want flexibility? Use the subscription model. Use a car (even customise a car)…change a car…lend the car to your friend…get your roadside assist and insurance organised as standard…need help? Press the button on the roof and the truck is there in minutes.

It all comes down to this: experience is at the heart of which brands will succeed and which will fail. Because the market is wide open for new entrants, or newly transformed incumbents. Think of…Uber (no cars); Alibaba (no inventory); Airbnb (no property). But thriving business models. Utility brands of the future will be no different. So when it’s all to play for, play for customer experience.

What if loyalty could be a brand attribute?

Points-based loyalty schemes are essentially broken. Consumers no longer have the brain space, and increasingly, they don’t reclaim the points. So what if you could shift from loyalty as a reward to loyalty as a brand attribute, that informs everything you do and the service you provide?

How? The analogy I often use starts with my favourite local clothes shop. They know me, they know what size I want, the type of thing I look for.

How does this work in a digital world? Look at Stitch Fix, giving that personal shopping experience at scale. They give me a personal stylist (whom I can keep or switch over time); tailored outfits for me; shipping, returns, messaging for my stylist when they (or the algorithm!) miss the mark.

As utilities provide more services, they must also understand consumer preferences in this same, personalised way. The AI is still valuable for consumer insights…but it’s more about creating a personal, loyal experience. Electric Kiwi’s CEO wants to become the most loved brand in New Zealand (not just the most loved energy brand). How? Customers choose a free off-peak energy hour. Like cooking? Use your hour for Sunday lunch. Gamer at night? Ok then. It’s personalising at scale—creating that connection that drives loyalty and trust.

While you’re at it, decouple business models

Customers want personalised services. And that means tapping into underserved groups, new ways of doing things at a micro or flexible level—and decoupling long-held notions around fees for services, or inputs and outputs. Example: utilities are increasingly providing solar…but mostly, that’s only on offer to you if you have a big roof (a sunny country helps too).

Here’s the alternative: look at Helen. Solar becomes as easy as Airbnb. You want a panel? Choose it from the solar farm and rent it. Now you’re in on the action in an affordable way, and buying into the clean energy transition too.

Data as a force for good in the customer dynamic

Utilities have huge volumes of data at their fingertips, on consumer usage patterns, demand, behaviours. And how to give them the experiences and products they need. Example: you can advertise EV charging points to consumers…but if they have on-street parking, or communal apartment block carparks, you’re going to need to offer them shared charge points. And the conversation is different.

You need to think about: where are the barriers and how can data help you overcome them, while improving the customer experience? One example I like is Copenhagen, where citizens have been riding with a red disk on their bike, transmitting data to a central hub, showing…many bridges should be bike only (no vehicles); buses should have bike space at the back for the final stage of journeys….it’s data for the greater good. And what better example of data for good than utilities working with consumers on the energy transition? Data is one of the most valuable commodities for innovating new brands, products and services, with new partnerships. And all the while driving change.

Moving beyond CX to BX will be a major determinant of success for energy providers . The evidence is there – on average, BX-oriented companies grow their profitability year-on-year by at least six times over their industry peers. Contact me to find out more about how to make CX central to your future vision.

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Mark Sherwin

Managing Director – Accenture Interactive

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