Winter complaints are coming – and this year, the pressure feels different

Written by Leanne Armstrong Small headshot image of Leanne Armstrong, Senior Consultant at BFY Group.
19 Oct 2023
Complaints Customer Service Operational Excellence
Man riding upwards on a steep hill on a mountain bike.

It’s that time of year again. Temperatures are falling, energy consumption is rising, and suppliers are set to face a new wave of customer complaints, as a natural consequence of increased usage.

Billing errors, meter read discrepancies, and service interruptions – each can be a driver for more customer contact during any winter period. But this time around, there’s greater pressure at play. Vulnerability will remain high on the agenda after the Energy Security and Net Zero committee report was published in September, and rightly so, given the concerning statistics it shared.

Combine this with Ofgem’s Statutory Consultation into Consumer Standards Consultation, for which a decision was announced only yesterday, and the customer service landscape starts to look challenging for suppliers, more so than ever before.

This blog explores these pressures in greater detail, with a specific focus on complaints, outlining practical steps suppliers can take to manage the challenges ahead.

The impact of the committee report

As mentioned above, vulnerability was a key theme in ‘Preparing for the winter’ – the Energy Security and Net Zero committee report. It stated that last winter, 4,706 excess deaths were caused by living in a cold home in England, Scotland, and Wales. This was up from 3,186 deaths in the year before, and let’s remember that last winter was considered mild in comparison to average historic temperatures.

Energy is a necessity for some customers. Therefore, any disruptions to service or billing can have more serious consequences for these groups. Suppliers are under pressure to define and implement strategies for effective customer support this winter, as a result of the committee report, and this includes their ability to pre-empt and resolve disruption.

Calls for change are also amplified by a lack of government intervention. Last year, the government took unprecedented steps to support customers throughout winter with the EPG and EBSS, and they’re yet to announce any holistic proposals to support vulnerable customers this time around. We’re expecting this to mean higher bills for customers in Q4-23, despite reductions in the Price Cap, as reported in our blog back in August.

Expectations vs Standards – A cause for complaints

When customers are more reliant on energy, their expectations of suppliers also rises, particularly around reliability and responsibility in the face of issues. This influences their propensity to complain, and given that average customer satisfaction scores were 2.91/5 in April-June 2023, it’s clear to see how complaint volumes could increase in the coming months.

Although during Q2-23, the industry actually saw a ~6% decrease in complaints received per 100k customers, this hasn’t translated into a large impact on aged complaints (unresolved by day 56), which has improved by 1% across all suppliers. These statistics are taken from our Complaints Benchmarking study for energy suppliers.

Interestingly, we now know that suppliers will need to publish their customer service ratings from 14th December, as provided by Citizen’s Advice, as part of the new measures announced yesterday by Ofgem.

So, what can suppliers do?

To reduce complaints volumes in today’s climate, an empathetic customer service approach is crucial, focussing specifically on customer satisfaction and regulatory compliance. While it may be challenging to quantify empathy in the same way as measures like hold times or response times, its importance, especially for vulnerable customers, can’t be overstated.

Here are some ways that energy suppliers can adopt a more proactive and empathetic approach, helping to minimise complaints:

  • Personalising communication and being proactive with it during critical periods
  • Educating customers
  • Preventative outreach
  • Offering energy efficiency advice
  • Providing empathy training for agents
  • Prioritising accessibility and support for vulnerable customers

Alongside this, suppliers should be looking to adopt a proactive culture around improving customer standards. The committee report recommended suppliers shouldn’t wait to be enforced to standards by Ofgem in December, and instead be proactively innovating to improve customer satisfaction.

Strategies that could help to promote this culture include:

  • Empowering and training agents to resolve issues quickly, balancing strong process knowledge, resilience, and collection skills
  • Positively reinforcing good customer service to encourage a customer-centric mindset
  • Investing time to understand customer needs and expectation; analysing feedback, using data analytics to gain insights into customer expectations and pain points
  • Expanding debt prevention teams

Although being proactive can be effective, it’s inevitable that some complaints will be raised, in which case it’s vital to instil a focus on first-contact resolution. This should be prioritised as a key metric, while encouraging agents to address issues comprehensively during the initial interaction.

Actions to support this include:

  • Cross-training agents to handle various aspects of customer service
  • Ensuring real-time monitoring of customer service queues
  • Establishing clear escalation processes to avoid aged complaints, Ombudsman referrals, and fines
  • Using post-resolution feedback to identify opportunities for faster resolution

How can we help?

At BFY, our Complaints experts and Operational Excellence team can help you to enhance the focus on prevention and effective resolution, driving improvements in agent outcomes, processes, and ultimately improving overall customer service.

For more information on how we can help, contact Leanne Armstrong.

Leanne Armstrong

Leanne helps clients to achieve operational excellence through demand reduction, process optimisation, and cost to serve initiatives.

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Small headshot image of Leanne Armstrong, Senior Consultant at BFY Group.