By Jo Causon, CEO, Institute of Customer Service

As digitisation spreads across sectors and industries, technology is rapidly changing the customer experience landscape. The digital transformation underway across many organisations in the water sector is enabling smoother interactions that remove friction for the customer and improve efficiency for the business. However, there’s also a risk in trying to digitise too much too fast. The key to unlocking the promise of innovative technology lies in how it combines with the level of personal interaction to ensure an empathetic connection with customers. This is the equation that water companies should strive to balance on both sides.

Digitisation and how it applies to customer service is a theme we explored in depth at The Institute in our recent research called A Connected World?. This found that many customers are embracing technology and welcome many of the advancements it is bringing. In particular, customers are using apps and also enjoy being able to self-serve for transactional requirements like checking bills, browsing options and finding essential information.

However, when it comes to more complex and personalised matters – and especially when there is a problem – most customers still want and expect to be able to talk to a real person and receive direct, human attention.

Customers: a mixed digital picture

While nearly three-quarters (73%) of the 1,000 customers we surveyed described themselves as confident users of technology, this still leaves a significant proportion who are less assured. In addition, 23% of respondents said they currently help a friend or family member to deal with an organisation online or digitally.

This is a reminder that there remain significant sections of organisations’ customer bases who are not well-adapted to the technology environment. This can be for many reasons. Some simply prefer traditional ways of interacting with organisations; others are wary of data privacy and confidentiality; while others – often for financial reasons – may not have the equipment or broadband access to engage digitally. In addition, there are vulnerable customers who may straddle any of the above categories or have special needs when interacting online.

Organisations such as water companies that provide essential services have a duty to cater for all of these diverse needs and preferences. In assessing the risk of digital exclusion, they need to consider how they will enable communication both with vulnerable customers who have challenges in using technology, and customers who prefer not to engage through digital channels. As essential service providers, achieving the right blend of technology and in-person service becomes even more important.

Regulators and government have a key role in monitoring customer service outcomes for vulnerable people, setting minimum standards and encouraging organisations to share practice. As technology develops and organisations seek to offer differentiated customer experiences to digitally confident customers, it will be increasingly relevant to assess fairness of customer service outcomes for all customers.

Service benefits on tap?

But what are the benefits that organisations introducing greater levels of technology into their service delivery are unlocking? Our research finds that many are using technology to improve workflow processes, bolster analytics for better decision-making, and to achieve better integration of data.

Some of the most impactful applications empower employees to deliver better service experiences: real-time prompts based on analytics of similar customer interactions, increased visibility of relevant data, and analysis of interactions with customers to identify training needs. One striking example is the role of customer service advisers as “digital coaches” – helping customers to use digital channels, stepping in where they are experiencing a problem, but doing this with the customer and, therefore, improving customer knowledge and capability as well.

Channel mix matters

One lesson we see clearly in our research is that it is vital to provide a variety of channels through which customers can contact and interact with the organisation – because individuals have a range of preferences and experiences.

Overall, email, apps and phone remain the most positively rated channels, with webchat not far behind. It is notable, however, that automated chatbots emerge as amongst the least satisfying and most annoying experiences for many customers – frequently because they take people on a ‘circular loop’ and don’t provide satisfactory solutions. AI capabilities are moving very rapidly, and the transformational potential it offers may be just around the corner. However, it’s clear that successful deployment of chatbots requires excellent design and structuring of customer journeys, thorough testing – and quick human intervention when it is needed.

Source: A Connected World?, Ensuring the right blend of people and technology for customer service, The Institute of Customer Service, 2022

Achieving the right blend

The best service approaches will see a blend of the technological and the human – working in combination to support and complement each other.

We also see successful organisations using technology and customer data to help predict likely spikes in contact from customers. In the water industry, this might mean identifying the early signs of a significant leak for example. Preventative action can then be taken – protecting the customer experience and alleviating the pressure on the contact centre before it happens. Ensuring that there are good communication flows between operations and customer service is therefore essential.

It is also crucial that the implementation of technology is not seen solely through a cost saving lens. With the cost of living crisis that is upon us, I am concerned that more organisations may look for cost efficiencies by increasing their use of technology and automated service, at the expense of their human customer service teams. This would be a mistake. If Covid taught us anything, it was the importance of human support and interaction through difficult times – something that the water and utilities sectors were right at the forefront of.

Without doubt, many water companies and utility providers have further to go in their digital transformation journey and how they weave new technology into the service model. This can in fact be a strength, because it enables them to learn from the experience of others and take a considered approach.

I am sure that we will see increasing advances in the sector moving forward. The key to success will be to achieve the right balance of human and tech that covers the needs, expectations and priorities of all sections of the varied customer base that relies on them to provide one of the very essentials of life.