It seems that the unseasonably mild temperatures that dominated December, with their associated sights of unsettling oddness such as daffodils blossoming at the end of my street on Christmas Day, have been replaced by something a little more familiar now that January is into its stride. I had to scrape a thick layer of ice from my car this morning; it felt good, as if order had been restored to the universe. So as the nation finally gets to don its collective hat and gloves, there has followed the predicable slew of stories in the media about heating costs and the relative qualities of the home energy industry.
The UK energy market continues to be dominated by six companies, delivering gas and electricity to 87% of homes. There's of course nothing inherently strange or blog-worthy about such a statistic: this is clearly an industry comprised of major players who've done an impressive job of carving out a significant chunk of a crowded market for themselves. Well, nothing strange that is until you consider the results of a recent survey by consumer champion Which? suggesting significant numbers of energy customers are dissatisfied with the service that they are receiving.
Rights-free image via pixabay.com
I'd imagine that there's been a few tense and awkward meetings in the headquarters of Npower after a sixth year of finishing bottom of the league table of customer satisfaction, with a score of a meagre 41%. Not that their competitors are starting their years with anything approaching plaudits for their own levels of customer service: two more of the 'Big Six' are rated below 50% and the three remaining companies only just scrape over this mark, with EDF being the best-rated but still with a decidedly shaky 55%.
In the era of price comparison sites and the ease with which consumers can switch their energy suppliers, you'd imagine Which?'s portrait of an industry predicated on shoddy service would mean that customers are forever shifting their accounts between the companies in search of the love for which they are pining. But no. The survey reveals that only 10% of customers changed suppliers last year meaning that there's a lot of grumpy people out there, fuming like the chimney of a coal-fired power station but unwilling to do anything about it.
It's tempting to ask if there's any happiness at all in the energy market. Is anyone satisfied with the service they are receiving? Well yes; there's a small group of customers who seem to be in very good spirits: those who buy their energy from one of the smaller companies who together comprise the remaining 13% of the market not served by the 'Big Six'. According to Which?, Ovo Energy boasts a satisfaction rate twice as high as that of Npower, with 82% of its customers looking favourably on their relationship with the company; Good Energy and Ecotricity are likewise keeping on the good side of their client base with ratings of 81% and 77% respectively.
Let me be clear that I'm not quoting these figures maliciously or to point a finger at the undoubtedly dedicated and skilled teams that run these energy giants. It's a tough task helming a company of this size and in a sense comparing the 'Big Six' with their vastly smaller rivals is akin to likening Tesco with the independently-owned, single site organic coffee shop and florist that I visited at the weekend.
But still, the figures are compelling and prompt an obvious question: what are the small energy companies doing that the giants are not? Is it simply a question of size? I'd argue that the size issue is moot in this particular discussion. Great customer service depends on a plurality of factors not easily summarised in a blog post, but as a quick list I'd posit that the following principles are a decent starting point: responsiveness, agility, empathy and knowledge.
None of these elements are intrinsically easier to manage in a smaller company than in a larger one; their delivery depends on the quality of staff and, significantly, the tools that they have at their disposal to serve the needs of their customers. Modern, flexible CRM systems offer a way of individualising service based on a comprehensive knowledge of customers and the one-click ability to share information with exactly the right person within a company to deal with an enquiry.
The Institute of Customer service, commenting on its own recently-published survey of customer service, is quick to agree that individualising is vital in the pursuit of consumer happiness. Its chief executive Jo Causon said: "Mass marketing or a 'one size fits all' customer experience is delivering diminishing returns and diluting valuable customer relationships." The ICS survey also concurred with Which? that it's the newer, challenger brands, unencumbered by entrenched and outdated practices, that are leading the chase when it comes to happy customers.
You'd have to think that this baffling dichotomy in the energy market between loyalty and customer dissatisfaction cannot endure forever. We live in an age where customers are ever-more confident in asserting their rights and demanding ever-higher standards of the companies with which they spend their money via a range of new channels; as such I'd urge the 'Big Six' to look to their systems and processes to ensure that they do a better job of keeping people happy.
Or they might find that next winter is a cold one. Whatever the temperature.