Posted: 20th October 2021

Over two million energy customers have seen their supplier suddenly forced to leave the market this year due to a combination of wholesale pricing pressures and the financial strain of a global pandemic. Most of these suppliers have been relatively small recent entrants to the market, leaving larger well-established energy firms to gain thousands of their customers as a result of Ofgem’s Supplier of Last Resort (SoLR) orders.

Those firms now face an unusual situation – balancing the onboarding of new customers with maintaining high standards of service for their existing customer base, all while helping both groups come to terms with higher tariffs enabled by the price cap hike. This is a delicate situation, but with switching on the rise there’s a real opportunity for firms to build their reputation and create better customer outcomes.

Here are five ways energy providers can achieve this:

1. Use data to get a handle on cashflow

When a SoLR comes into effect there often isn’t a great deal of warning and a rushed and unplanned response can create problems further down the line. Gaining visibility of credit balances, debt and risk by cleaning customer data and reviewing existing financial history as early as possible will help direct the strategy for onboarding.

2. Dedicate resource to complex cases

Customers with a clean history and a direct debit in place can be handed directly to your allocated BAU team for relatively straightforward onboarding, keeping them informed on how their credit will transfer to your business. Customers with existing debt, vulnerabilities, or a history of complaints, can be passed to specialist teams with the appropriate training and skills to manage complex conversations. Ultimately, understanding customer needs can save time and resource at a later date and reduce the chance that customers who are behind on their bills will switch supplier, leaving firms with outstanding debt.

3. Be empathetic

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau has astutely summarised that “acquiring suppliers will need to be understanding of consumers’ frustration and will need to rebuild trust”.   This may even mean starting at the beginning with customers – and they may need to understand why this switch has been necessary at all. People don’t often like unexpected change, but ensuring they have all the facts available helps improve the situation.

The best way for this to be achieved is through clear communication - ideally a phone call. A trained call handler will not only be able to empathise with the customer but can identify any complex needs at first point of contact, getting the relationship off on the right foot. To alleviate pressure on customer service centres, this work could be undertaken by a dedicated team, with a dedicated number, who can assess the needs of every new customer as an individual. By investing time and resource into this process, fewer customers will feel the need to switch later.

4. Avoid causing unnecessary complaints

By having effective conversations with customers early on, first point of contact staff may reduce those needing complex case management later. We see many issues logged as complaints which would have not triggered the cost and resource of the formal process had they been managed with empathy to begin with. For example, many customers want to express their frustration at rising energy prices or being forced to change provider, but this is not something energy firms have control over. Frontline staff can be trained to empathise with these frustrations and educate customers through a conversation about the price cap rises or the process following an SoLR order.

The mindset should follow that if a customer is facing a genuine issue, then the normal complaints process should be triggered, but simply empathising with a customer, listening to their feedback and explaining the situation often reduces the likelihood of a formal complaint.

5. Ensure all customers feel valued

Whether their supplier has collapsed or is still in business, all customers want to feel valued. At a time when the market is facing intense pricing pressures, firms that deliver excellent customer service through empathy and education have an opportunity to perform well in the CAB League Table and safeguard CSAT scores throughout the winter.

Huntswood is a trusted partner for delivering better outcomes, providing resourcing, outsourcing and advisory services across a range of front and back-office customer operations. If you’re an energy provider impacted by an SoLR order and looking to maintain high-quality customer service standards, email Huntswood’s Utilities Account Director, Lisa Sweeney.