The water industry has faced huge change in recent years. A rising tide of challenges including climate change, population growth, ageing infrastructure, changing customer expectations and regulatory intervention from Ofwat mean water companies are under pressure to perform.

In the year ahead, the last two challenges in that list are probably the most pressing.

Ofwat’s 2019 Price Review (PR19) marks a regulatory move from an old service incentive model to a new, more stringent measure of service called C-MeX (Customer Measure of Experience).

C-MeX measures four key areas: customer service, customer experience, net promoter score and complaint Handling. To succeed, water companies will need to think more strategically and holistically about customer experience, the role of brand and how they can offer frictionless customer service through all customer channels.

Speaking at the Future of Utilities conference in London last year, Ofwat’s CEO Rachel Fletcher told her audience that companies who do well in PR19 would be those that go beyond thinking about customer service and complaints handling and consider how every aspect of their service impacts their customers.

She cited recent water company research revealing that people expect their water company to add value to their local community and improve the environment – a “social contract” which is much more multifaceted than a commercial relationship.

Even without C-MeX, the case for brilliance in customer experience is an easy one to make. Those organisations with higher levels of customer satisfaction experience higher growth in turnover and profit, as well as better employee productivity.

At True, we believe smart digital thinking is key to making a genuine shift to customer centricity. Here are just four examples of the potential for technology to transform customer experience:

1. Analytics and automation

Predictive analytics and modelling can pre-empt issues and encourage proactive action by customers. Say, for example, planned works are likely to cause reductions in water pressure. Postcode driven early warning messages could inform customers, with simple advice on how to minimise the impact on their daily routine. Similarly, where leaks have been reported, we can help customers understand where to find their stopcocks. Integrating weather and temperature data means we can help customers take preventative action to avoid frozen pipes or anticipate risk of flooding.

Automation has the potential to deliver dramatic service improvements. According to Water UK, the UK water industry has more than 700,000 kilometres of mains and sewers – enough to stretch to the moon and back. The Environment Agency estimates we lose the equivalent of the water used by 20 million people in leaks from that infrastructure every single day. Around 1 in every 300 homes and 1 in every 20 swimming pools has a leak. Even a tiny pinhead hole will leak 1,363,750 litres in a year.

With growing awareness of the need to protect the world’s most valuable natural resource, businesses who take innovative measures to solve these problems, investing in new technology like micro robots and sophisticated sensors, have a great deal to gain. Provided, of course, they communicate their efforts effectively to customers.

Away from the water industry, predictive analytics and AI is being used effectively by Trainline. They can now estimate seat availability based on previous journey bookings, general rail network usage, delays and weather. This helps customers plan their journeys and takes the hassle out of finding available seats.

Embracing Technology and Innovation in Digital Marketing – Energy and Utilities

2. Influencing behavioural change

We all need to use less water – it’s a finite resource and our lives depend on it. It’s not easy to change entrenched behaviour, but using data to identify spikes in household usage means we can nudge people to change their habits.

One of the key problems is the UK weather. A lot of rainfall creates the illusion that we have plentiful water in this country. The fact is, we have limited natural or man-made methods of water storage and a relatively small volume of water available per person. According to Water UK, the south east of England has less water available per person than the desert states of Syria and Sudan.

Mobile apps and digital devices can deliver timely and targeted prompts to help people to keep track of the water they are using. An unusually hot weather spell, for example, can trigger smart ideas for keeping the garden watered.

For those households on water meters, a higher than normal bill could trigger water saving advice along with examples of how much money can be saved on your next bill, delivered right at the point of billing via social service and app channels.

3. Community engagement

Ofwat’s C-MeX will see a greater need for customer engagement, beyond the usual functional customer service contact and problem resolution. Most, if not all, utilities companies run a variety of schemes aimed at helping their local communities. However, awareness of these initiatives is often low amongst wider communities.

Thames Water has recently launched a new online community platform that will make it easy for customers to engage with the company and each other. The data from these conversations will be used to improve the service they provide.

Northumbrian Water are experimenting with artificial intelligence to deliver bespoke flooding information to their customers, making sure they know how to respond when problems occur. Essex and Suffolk Water have recently launched The Leakage Portal – an interactive map where the community can report leaks, categorise their severity, see where problems have already been reported and track progress on repairs.

4. Self service

According to ForeSee’s 2018 Utilities CX Insights report, 80% of customers would forego the call centre if provided with an ideal online experience. Great digital self service can make organisations more cost efficient and give customers more control of their spending.

Companies like United Utilities are making life easy for their customers with an app that lets them make payments, submit meter readings and view their payment history.

Recently, their app has been enhanced to include ‘Report a Leak’ functionality. Customers take a picture of a leak with their phone or tablet, and using Google Maps integration, the exact location can be pinpointed by the United Utilities team. They can then deal with leaks based on their severity and organise efficient repair routes and schedules.

Customers are more engaged with and aware of their water service, and the utility provider can operate more quickly and effectively – a win-win.

Developments in conversational technology including chatbots, voice interfaces and conversational search are also playing an important role in helping consumers find the information they need more easily. For utility companies, these technologies can triage customers to the right customer service representative, allowing better informed conversations and more effective customer service.

With a great self-service strategy, businesses are more easily accessible and responsive to customers, 24/7. Better communication and increased transparency builds trust – and that’s a long-standing issue in the utilities sector.

This year’s introduction of C-MeX really could be the moment for positive change. Consider these findings from the January 2018 Institute of Customer Service UK Customer Satisfaction Survey: organisations who score higher than average in terms of customer satisfaction generate more than double the amount of revenue per head than those who scored below average. In other words, who cares wins.

Energy brand Bulb is doing great things with UX (here are five examples)