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PR19: Why water utilities can’t afford to forget their back office

The results of Ofwat’s upcoming price review, PR19, will put the water sector under the microscope at a time when it is already the subject of intense scrutiny.

The industry has become a political lightning rod, with criticism of everything from the prices water companies charge to the transparency of their tax arrangements and even their fundamental ownership model.

With PR19 set to land amid this increasingly febrile atmosphere, it’s more important than ever that water companies’ customer service functions stand up to the highest levels of scrutiny.

The customer challenges for the sector are vast, from mounting customer debts that are proving difficult for the water utilities to recall, to keeping up with the pace of demanding customer enquiry turnaround times.

Looking beyond the water sector for inspiration

Ofwat clearly believes that historically the industry has largely punched below its weight when it comes to customer engagement, and wants water companies to look outside the sector for inspiration.

When John Russell, Ofwat’s Senior Director of Strategy and Planning, addressed Utility Week Live last year, he spoke of his determination to see water companies competing with some of the country’s best-known brands to achieve the highest levels of customer service.

He expressed disappointment that no water companies had made the top 50 in the Institute of Customer Service’s annual UK Customer Satisfaction Index, and added: “We know that customers don’t compare the service they receive from their water company with the services provided by other water companies. They compare the services they received with companies like Amazon, ASOS and John Lewis.

“But we believe that water companies can be up there competing with these types of companies on customer engagement and service.”

That is not an unrealistic ambition.

ODIs and service delivery

And the fact that Ofwat has consulted on stronger ODIs (Outcome Delivery Incentives) to better align incentives with a greater emphasis on service delivery should further prompt water companies to focus on the importance of back office efficiency and delivering an exceptional customer experience when they submit their draft business plans to Ofwat in September.

Delivering exceptional service

We know that one of the biggest customer experience challenges facing water utilities today is turnaround of enquiries and complaints.

To meet this demand, the ability to consistently deliver exceptional, accurate frontline service using a customer’s preferred contact channel is now essential.

The pace of technology means end users expect a fast, personalised response – particularly millennials, who will often turn to Twitter before picking up the phone.

But, in an increasingly digital world, it’s easy to dedicate too much focus on modern, disruptive contact channels, such as social media, and utilities cannot afford to forget the back office as part of their first-time resolution response.

Paper and email are still extremely popular with consumers and remain one of the most essential delivery methods for customer experience at a water utility’s disposal.

But water companies can sometimes take up to a week to process and reply to paper and email correspondence, putting their customer satisfaction scores at risk.

Are you set up to meet customers’ rising expectations?

At Parseq, we already work with a number of the country’s utility providers, and inbound mail management is a particular specialty.

We have a detailed and efficient process in place – scanning, validating and capturing data from the documents using advanced intelligent character recognition technology.

This process enables us to respond to paper mail within 24 hours. We are also responding to thousands of e-enquiries each month, turning them round in four hours or less.

Speed of response is critical when upholding customer relationships. But increasing satisfaction scores is not just about speed. It’s about getting it right first time. A good outsourcing partner should be an extension of your business and an ambassador for your brand, solving problems, dealing with queries, turning complaints into loyal customers and generally exceeding expectations at every turn.

Lowering the cost to serve

The right approach in the back office enables the streamlining of customer engagement, increased satisfaction scores, reduced financial pressures, and ultimately, lowering the cost to serve.

Customers and Ofwat are demanding great service that is comparable with the brands they trust on the high street or online.

The only way water companies will achieve all this, is to find new and better ways of delivering those services.

As PR19 looms ever closer, the expectations placed on water companies, and the implications of failing to meet those expectations, have never been higher.

Craig Naylor-Smith has been the Managing Director of Parseq’s Finance & Administration division since 2013. With over 20 years’ experience in BPO, Finance & Administration and back office processing, he has a wealth of knowledge across client operations, services and sales.

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