Monday, December 17

When statistics hide the truth about customer complaints

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Ofgem’s complaints report shows the problem – and the opportunities

The trouble with being a customer experience-obsessive is that as soon as you hear an item on the news about complaints reports, your carefully-planned day is ruined as you have to follow it up out of curiosity, weird as that may sound. Thus, today, the news that UK’s energy regulator Ofgem had published its review of complaints was pure catnip for me. And as someone committed to helping organisations (NextTen’s not currently working in the energy sector but that doesn’t prevent me from having an interest – and of course we’re open to offers!) I’m interested in what these reports say about the state of complaint handling – the “Cinderella” of customer experience, as I’ve said many times before.

On the naughty step

Although the survey of over 3,000 complainants found that satisfaction with complaint handling had improved by 5% since the last survey in 2016, the proportion of customers who are dissatisfied (57%) remains much higher than those satisfied with how their complaint had been dealt with.

The main contributors to high levels of dissatisfaction were the length of time taken to resolve the issue, not being kept up to date with the progress of the complaint and suppliers not providing complainants with a clear view of how long the resolution will take

Ofgem’s statement gives the impression of a regulator who’s had enough of energy companies’ lackadaisical approach, having put three of the smaller outfits – First Utility, Ovo Energy and Utilita – under compliance investigation and requiring all the others to share their improvement plans. This is admirable, as in other regulated industries the relevant bodies don’t always give the impression of being on the side of great customer experience.

I know from my experience of working in banking, another regulated industry, that mention of any investigation or referral to the FCA is enough to galvanise action, so this will generate some useful action, although there’s a risk that the effort spent in responding to the regulator and justifying action would be better spent on the actual improvement work.

Some of the responses by energy companies – as reported on BBC Radio’s “You and Yours” consumer programme later in the day – were already edging towards the defensive. Utilita said that the report was looking at complaints up to November 2017 and since then it had reduced the number of complaints. Indeed, the overall number of complaints has halved since 2014 so, superficially, it sounds like an industry moving in the right direction.

Lies, damn lies…

Taking a look at Utilita’s data – available on their website – is revealing. Overall, complaints have dropped between Q2 2017 and Q2 2018. But whilst the last quarter shows a drop-off in overall complaints, the numbers resolved at +1 day and after 8 weeks had dropped, suggesting that there’s a rump of really difficult complaints that are tough to resolve.

And that’s where the problem lies both for external observers like me, and insiders. If you can find a statistic that shows – even “proves” – that you’re doing the right thing, you will certainly want to use it. But the old adage “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies – and statistics” applies here – the statistics you don’t share are the ones that are much more revealing.

Whilst it’s interesting that Utilita’s time to resolve is increasing I’m more interested in the stories that underpin the data. I can’t tell what the specific issues are from the data, but I’d hope that any recurrent and intractable underlying causes were being dealt with.

…and tweets

You and Yours helpfully quoted some social media comments – about energy companies in general it should be said – which I found much more illuminating. Most referred to the difficulty in contacting customer service to complain or to switch or just to talk to a human being. Again, that’s just a non-representative sample to support a news story, but if it were me even one of these complaints would be too many.

And that’s the problem: statistics will tell you that you’re broadly improving, but customer stories will pin-point the pain. And focusing on the really painful experiences will drive fundamental improvements in broken processes that, when fixed, will provide a platform for overall improvements in customer experience.

Balancing act

As a head of customer experience or complaints, you have the challenge of making the case for improvement, so you have to balance powerful anecdotal evidence of dissatisfaction with trend data to make the case for funding customer experience improvements in preference to other important projects. It’s a problem we see all the time at NextTen and over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing ideas on how you can make a robust case for powerful customer experience. It’s far too important to wait for a regulator to kick you into action.

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About Author

Business strategist, consultant and change manager who helps companies become genuinely customer-centric. Nick delivers customer-driven business transformation projects and has worked across many industries including banking and finance, insurance, telecommunications, industrial and public sector. Has held senior roles with variety of blue chip names including BT, Royal Bank of Scotland, CSC and Sema Group. Currently Head of Delivery at NextTen Innovation Solutions

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