New report unveils the hidden opportunity of customer correspondence for utilities providers

Posted: Wednesday 5th December 2018

New research has shed fresh light onto the way customers prefer to receive correspondence from their utilities providers, confirming the value of functional communications in building customer relationships and revealing changing consumer expectations as technology evolves.

The survey of 2000 consumers was conducted by OnePoll on behalf of outsourced communications provider Opus Trust Marketing. It uniquely focuses on account-related communication, revealing that:

The research has confirmed that customer choices cannot easily be predicted by age or demographic and the main point of divergence was the type of communication itself, meaning utilities providers must assess their suite of correspondence to ensure each piece achieves cut through and elicits a response. Consumers were more likely to opt for post for critical information and documents that need to be acted upon or stored, whereas email was more often the preferred way to receive transactional or regular communications, followed by online portals.

Across all age groups, consumers were happy to switch to exclusively digital communications from at least one service provider, with 51% happy to receive bills and statements electronically from their utilities providers.

Wider trends revealed a willingness across all age groups to take a more independent approach towards their account management: 42% of all consumers want to manage their accounts online without the need to contact their provider, including 45% of over 55s. Apps were the only area that revealed a generational divide: over 20% of under 34s use apps to pay bills, compared to just 4% of over 55s, and they were consistently the least preferred tool for this age group (for example, four times as many under-34s use apps to view their current account statements compared to over-55s).

However, the preference for digital and ‘self-serve’ account management for some sectors doesn’t mean a hands-off approach for businesses: consumers still want the ability to contact and many expect email or SMS notifications for changes on their accounts or to notify them of any action required.

Faced with these preferences, utilities providers may need to invest more in their omnichannel communications strategies. Far fewer utilities customers opt to use online portals (16%) and apps (2%) compared to other sectors such as banking, where a third of customers use apps and portals to view statements.

30% of gas, electricity and water customers prefer to receive bills through the post, with 49% opting for email and 16% using their online portal. Over half of all broadband and phone company customers prefer to receive bills by email, with 26% selecting post. 45% of consumers prefer to receive utilities contracts through the post, and 41% by email – demonstrating that direct communication is still the preferred communications method.

Shifting expectations

There is also a shift in how customers want to contact their suppliers. Currently 42% of consumers expect to be able to discuss their account over the phone with suppliers (including 46% of 18-24 year olds, defying the ‘Generation Mute’ label) and 31% currently use the phone for general enquiries. However, only 16% expect to pick up the phone to their supplier in five years’ time and 33% expect to be using online chat bots or live chat functions, up 123% from today’s usage and slightly higher than the 31% expecting to communicate by email by 2023.

Account-related correspondence is also less disposable than direct mail: 80% of utilities consumers file away at least one type of communication, with hard copies preferred by 62% of those who do.

However, 60% of consumers also expect their provider to keep copies of documents online for them to access, reiterating the importance of including intelligent document management and retrieval in a company’s customer experience strategy.

Rob Alonso, Chief Executive of Opus Trust Marketing, said:

“Regular communications speak volumes about a company but are overlooked as tool to help build customer relationships. The research unveils a hidden opportunity to turn conventional, more functional communications into engaging, relevant and informative customer experiences.

“The message from this report is clear: consumers value customer correspondence and they are embracing new technology and channels, but there is no one-size-fits-all communications strategy. Regardless of sector, consumers each have individual preferences and organisations must ensure they offer customers a choice of channels to enable them to customise their communications. The message being conveyed often has the biggest impact on preferred channel, making an omnichannel strategy even more important.

“Utilities providers have already proven the success of paperless billing, with the majority of customers willing to shift to digital communications in the sector. However, current preferences demonstrate that even those customers embracing digital with some providers continue to opt for traditional mail – yet expectations will rise as other sectors invest in more interactive technology.

“Businesses should also act now to prepare for the future and meet these changing expectations: consumers increasingly expect to use online chat functions, portals and apps to communicate with providers, and businesses must be ready to meet their changing expectations.”

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