Water companies face many challenges, from increasing demand from consumers who expect a seamless customer experience driven by the likes of Amazon and Netflix to regulatory benchmarks issued by Ofwat. Traditional contact centres looking to serve inbound customer queries solely with human agents are no longer a viable option to support the digital evolution taking place today. Technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) can boost customer experience, streamline processes, automate repeat calls and remove repetitive tasks for human agents, who can focus on more complex cases. By taking advantage of these technologies, water companies can not only improve the customer experience but also avoid heavy fines and in some cases enjoy significant financial incentives.
The challenge for the industry
Mass scale infrastructure damage and loss of supply can create huge spikes in the volume of customer contact that water companies receive. During these critical times, customers urgently need to know whether their provider is aware of the problem, what action it is taking, and when service will be restored. The challenge of responding to this influx intensifies when events strike at short notice.
Last year, Ofwat released its report on how water companies dealt with the ‘Beast from the East’. This extreme weather event left more than 200,000 consumers without water for four hours or more.
The report found that many water companies were ‘slow in responding to customer concerns, and did not have enough staff available to deal with the level of enquiries’. Only 60% of affected customers surveyed by the Consumer Council for Water received direct communication from their company, and many priority stakeholders (councils, local resilience forums, emergency services and schools) received little or no proactive communication before, during or after the event.
Water companies have the option to outsource customer calls to external contact centre agents or utilise non-contact centre colleagues to reduce the pressure on the existing system during periods of high call volume
Managing consumer interactions in the middle of a mass-scale incident proved extremely challenging, with few companies having the technical capacity or staff numbers to handle a sudden increase in enquiries. This led to even greater customer frustration because waiting times were long, calls were dropped, and questions were left unanswered.
In some cases, a poorly managed IT estate could be held accountable for this disjointed customer experience. Namely, a lack of meaningful integration between the front-end and back-end IT systems. Similarly, if there is also an absence of an integrated knowledge management system, this means that a contact centre agent must perform a multitude of different processes to get to the information they need on customers in real time.
Water companies actually have a wealth of information on their customers. With the knowledge that organisations have these records at their disposal, customers expect a level of personalisation during their interactions. They expect their provider will at least recognise who they are when they call and what previous interactions have taken place. Too often, this isn’t the case.
Water companies have the option to outsource customer calls to external contact centre agents or utilise non-contact centre colleagues to reduce the pressure on the existing system during periods of high call volume. However, this doesn’t always address the problem of customers waiting in long call queues, and the issue of agents managing large numbers of repeat calls for the same problem. Given recent regulatory changes that are about to be introduced, water companies’ customer service performance will be under even greater scrutiny.
Ofwat’s 2019 price review (PR19) has set out a number of regulatory requirements and has instituted significant financial penalties, which can be up to 12% of residential retail revenues over a five-year period.
The requirements for water companies include:
- The introduction of the Customer Measure (C-MeX), according to which only customers that rank water companies 9/10 will be classed as ‘promoters’
- Customers surveyed for the C-MeX will include those who have not contacted their water company
- Water companies are expected to offer at least five communications channels, three of which must be online
- All-round company resilience is expected, which includes customer service
- Ensuring that vulnerable customers are properly supported
- The expectation to push the boundaries to address customers’ needs for the future.
Those companies that want to get ahead of the game will need to act now. Poor customer experience damages brand reputation and can lead to increasing financial costs and penalties. It is clear that these companies can’t afford to get it wrong.
Technology holds the answer
Given the changing nature of the regulatory landscape, water companies need to have the flexibility to adapt to new regulations quickly and accurately to ensure compliance.
Technology can overcome these challenges and help water companies to comply with Ofwat regulations by fundamentally transforming how a contact centre operates.
Moving forward, companies have no choice, but to consider a scalable cloud contact centre that provides a single, blended customer contact queue across every channel of communication whether this be via web chat, email, social media, SMS or, of course, voice.
Cloud solutions are a broad toolkit for businesses to tailor their platform according to their own operations and environment and provide a complete frictionless customer journey.
Technology can overcome these challenges and help water companies to comply with Ofwat regulations by fundamentally transforming how a contact centre operates
How can customer experience be improved?
For starters, self-service tools and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology in the contact centre can be utilised to proactively send service updates and alerts based on customer postcode during critical times. As a result, customers’ needs are met before having to reach out themselves and speak to a human agent. This makes it easier to resolve the query at first contact and reduces call traffic to agents, who can focus on handling more complex queries.
AI is another highly valuable tool. It can leverage the wealth of customer data that companies hold to personalise the customer experience. It can identify vulnerable customers, such as those on the priority service register, through their phone number and give them priority access to the right type of assistance, reducing the impact of the problem.
To avoid conflict on voice calls, NLP can conduct sentiment analysis to determine if a customer is frustrated based on their tone of voice or certain key words that are spoken, and identify individuals with specific language requirements, and route these calls to the human agents with the appropriate skillsets. This not only improves the customer experience but also removes elements that could cause friction.
Given the industry’s desire to improve customer trust in the sector, building strong customer relations and demonstrating empathy are important elements for a successful customer service strategy. Therefore, a blended approach is necessary with AI and human agents working alongside one another. AI should not be used in isolation, it should be deployed to enhance and complement the overall customer service experience.
There is no doubt that AI will have a huge impact on the water utility sector. Among the many examples of where AI is already being deployed is the prediction of failure in infrastructure assets, before they occur. This enables providers to make proactive repairs to minimise disruption.
In an era where seamless customer experience is a minimum consumer expectation, water companies can find a valuable ally in technology to get ahead of the game
AI will enable the deployment of customer-centric solutions that adapt to meet evolving customer needs and will make automatic recommendations based on complex algorithms. However, when it comes to the loss of water where an individual’s wellbeing may be at risk, the role of the human agent should not be undervalued.
According to Ofwat’s PR19, water companies need to provide customers with vital information via their preferred communications channels. But, for a contact centre platform to be truly omni-channel, it needs to empower human agents with centralised information on a unified interface. A single queue can streamline messages from multiple channels onto the screen enabling service consistency.
For example, when a customer’s details are recognised on contact, the solution ‘screen pops’ all relevant information to the agent, leading to a rapid, well-informed service. An intelligent solution can even automatically connect a known customer with information about the likely cause of the interaction and information about what is being done to resolve it.
A contact centre platform with rich functionality enables human agents to make full use of all channels seamlessly and improve customer engagement. For example, they can interact with customers on social media or over the phone and simultaneously share click-through links via email or SMS. These fully joined-up estates also lead to better holistic reporting and governance overview for ongoing incident management, as well as historical reporting for post-incident evaluation.
In an era where seamless customer experience is a minimum consumer expectation, water companies can find a valuable ally in technology to get ahead of the game. Failing to embrace these innovations will cost companies dearly – but enhancing the customer experience can also carry with it great financial rewards.