Computers and artificial intelligence have come along at an exponential rate over the past few decades, from being regarded as oversized adding machines to the point where they have played integral roles in some legitimately creative endeavours.
For traditional utility players like EnergyAustralia, steeped in regulation and red tape, the move to modernise and transform the company to a customer-led approach isn’t easy.
Just ask EnergyAustralia chief customer officer, Kim Clarke, who discussed the journey during this week’s annual CMO, CIO and ADMA breakfast event, ‘Crafting Your Organisation’s Customer Experience Approach’.
Clarke said the utility provider is on a mission to change ideas and perceptions as it moves to a more customer-centric organisation.
“Let’s face it, the sector itself has been simply terrible at crafting anything remotely approaching what I would consider to be an excellent customer experience,” she told attendees. “Our managing director in particular, Catherine Tanna, and her entire executive team, myself included, plan to change that pedigree within the energy sector. Energy is an essential service and it is one that is going through enormous disruption.
“Designing a service and crafting an experience that encourages customers to mindfully engage in better energy decisions is actually going to be critical for Australia’s future, and the world’s future.”
Start with culture
Drawing on her varied experience in business, including as former CMO of Vodafone, Clarke said improving customer experience is always a question of culture.
“That culture starts at the very top and with getting a few business basics sorted,” she said. For Clarke, these are values, strategy, purpose and brand.
“Know your values. How you behave. You do need a direction in terms of having a really clear strategy in place. This is an essential for all organisations,” she said. “And back that up with the experiences that meet that promise.”
EnergyAustralia has seen its fair share of turmoil and copped plenty of bad press in recent years. A major hurdle was rolling out a new billing platform three years ago, which triggered massive billing errors that saw hundreds of thousands of customers affected. Clarke said there were also issues around as managing simple transactions and meter reads.
“Needless to say, there were more than a few customer complaints,” she said.
The story customers were telling EnergyAustralia was simple, compelling and confronting, Clarke said. “Energy retailers, including EnergyAustralia, have bored customer into apathy about energy,” she said.
“Customers see no difference between us so they choose based upon price. But customers also told us they are starting to see exciting things going on in energy: Electric vehicles, solar roads, to name but a few.”
At the same time, energy costs had spiralled in NSW by 30 per cent and 50 per cent in Victoria.
For Clark, the first step was to ensure values were lined up against customer needs. She summed these up in three core values: Customers are our priority; do the right thing; and lead change.
“I don’t doubt that these are similar to other organisation’s values, but they are far from trite, if they are religiously lived,” she continued. “And they need to be religiously lived from the very top. From the managing director, to the executive, all the way down in every single meeting, and every single interaction.”
EnergyAustralia has now set out a mission to make sure customers are the “absolute priority” for its 2000 employees.
“Our pride has traditionally come from how we generate energy. And while we need to retain that sense of pride, this must be grounded in why we serve,” Clark explained. “That’s a big change, a big shift.
“It is one thing to embrace that cultural change, at a corporate HQ, or call centres or marketing department, but it is completely different when you are actually trying to embrace hundreds of people who are sitting out there in your generation sites.”
Doing the right thing, even when no one is looking, is another company objective to live by, Clarke said.
“Having customers as a part of your value system gives you appropriate context to and weight to what will not be compromised in your organisation - and it has to come from the very top,” she said. “It has to be sitting around the executive table.”
But values without direction are vacuous, Clarke said. “You have to have direction, and know what direction you are going in. It definitely needs a strategy.”
Central to working out EnergyAustralia’s strategy was recognising that it is a B2C business. “Yes we need to keep investing to run our generation sites, but at the end of the day, we need to make sure customers choose trust and stay with us above all else,” Clarke said.
While the company has worked to lay out its customer centric strategy, Clarke said some measures and ideas have been difficult to digest. A big one has been helping customers actually reduce energy consumption and pay less.
“Would you encourage your customers to use less of your service if it was in their best interest? It is a very hard decision to make and it was something we have committed ourselves to do,” Clarke said.
“We are working to help customers change behaviour on how to save money on energy. The largest source of savings for most people is going to be using less energy; it is as simple as that.
“In doing this, are we being altruistic or philanthropic as a business? No, we’re not. The data talks: Look after customers in everything you do, even if it costs you money in the short term. It will pay dividends in the long term.”
Thanks to the efforts made to date, Clarke said the company has seen year-on-year improvements on churn since 2014.
From defining purpose, Clarke moved on to branding, launching a significant rebranding strategy.
“Our brand proposition is to empower and energise Australians towards better energy use. Our brand proposition acts as a single unifying idea that tells the very unique story of who we are and what we stand for,” she said. “But importantly, you have to tell the story your people first. Your brand is actually lived through your people.”
The company relaunched its brand and mantra of better energy use to customers three weeks ago, but for Clarke, this is just the lipstick.
“What’s more important are the experiences we end up providing to customers, and they are always delivered through people,” she said.
Clarke admitted the journey to customer-led culture is a long one, but she’s confident the foundational steps are now in place.
“I do feel like we are cultivating a really strong culture, which is the most important thing that is heading in the same direction that what we stand for, and the experiences we will create for customers, both today and in the future. Ultimately though, I'm not the judge. It will be the customers who have the final say.”