Award-Winning Insight from Severn Trent; How Quantitative Analysis Leads to Qualitative Change

Innovative customer service is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your local water company. Water and waste-management firms don’t face a lot of competition, and they have been slow to adopt innovations in customer service and complaint handling. Right?

Maybe not. Severn Trent plc is looking to change public perception of water utilities by analysing customer feedback, responding to complaints promptly, and anticipating problems. The company has put itself at the forefront of customer complaint handling in the UK. Having won the ‘Best Utilities’ category at the UK Complaint Handling Awards 2018, we look at the innovative strategy that helped them improve their complaints and take home the top trophy.

A BOLD PLAN

If you live in the Midlands, you are probably already a Severn Trent customer. The company’s 5,000-plus employees remove waste water and supply clean drinking water to about 8 million customers.

Like other water companies in England and Wales, Severn Trent’s economic operations are regulated by OFWAT, the Water Services Regulation Authority, which oversees privatised water companies. Its customer-service functions are regulated by the Consumer Council for Water. These agencies rate Severn Trent’s performance compared to 17 other water companies.

Last year Severn Trent management embarked upon a project to improve customer experience. The company launched an ambitious plan to analyse customer data and use it as a guide to improve service. It required a lot of number-crunching, meetings, and new initiatives - all without an increase in headcount or work hours.

Severn Trent’s goal was nothing less than to deliver a documented outstanding customer experience and to be recognised as the most trusted water company in England and Wales by 2020.

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

Severn Trent realised that its historic complaint data could serve as a roadmap to the changes they would need to make in order to reach their audacious goal. The company, therefore, embarked upon a granular analysis of records and new complaints. Management used the analysis as the basis to identify problems and focus improvement initiatives.

The company set its sights on billing complaints first. The company established an internal network of stakeholders who manage different parts of the customer’s experience. The groups confer monthly in “community of practice” meetings in which senior managers from billing, credit management, metering, complaints, training, quality, communications, and customer service meet to review current data and make strategic decisions to address problems. The community of practice addresses both short-term problems and long-term trends, identifying processes and areas that need to be shored up and assigning responsibility for the writing of action plans.

In addition to the monthly meetings, Severn Trent has established “loop cells” that review and update action plans on a fortnightly basis. The loop cells add feedback from customer surveys to the complaint data they already have, resulting in a comprehensive view of where and how customer service might be improved. Loop cell members also review internal agent feedback on problems and how they were resolved.

Monthly team meetings, weekly team communication cells, and “buzz” meetings where workers raise current issues, ask questions, propose solutions, and share best practices have increased communication among departments, managers, workers, and customer agents.

Severn Trent says it has time for all these meetings because it is now addressing complaints proactively and broadly with data insight and analysis instead of solving problems one at a time on a case-by-case basis.

A FLOW OF GOOD RESULTS

The first result of Severn Trent’s efforts was a reduction in complaints from the retail leg of the company - billing, metering, and credit management.

It might be counter-intuitive to think that addressing complaints better leads to fewer complaints, but that was a key insight of Severn Trent’s programme. Instead of solving problems once, the company’s cross-functional teams used complaint data to update operational work and prevent problems from recurring.

The company was able to assess its programme’s effectiveness by reviewing its OFWAT Service Incentive Mechanism score, a quarterly rating of customer service from the regulatory agency. Severn Trent has incorporated feedback from the SIM ratings into its ongoing complaint-reduction operations.

Severn Trent hoped to reduce retail complaints by 20%. In fact, the company quickly surpassed the target, averaging a 29.3% reduction in the first few months and hitting 34% by October 2017.

OFWAT’s Service Incentive Mechanism score is awarded on a five-point basis. To date, the company has hit 4.57, which puts it in fifth place among all water companies. Severn Trent believes it will achieve its SIM target score of 4.75 within 12 months.

EXCELLENCE SPREADS

Severn Trent’s data mining of customer complaints has found applications outside the customer service department. The company has incorporated the data in its employee training programme. New hires learn about customer requirements and expectations along with the technical skills they need to do their job. And the company has begun “multiskilling” customer service agents, training them across departments to handle temporary high call volume and pull together customer solutions that may bridge departments.

Severn Trent is so pleased with its use of quantitative data to achieve qualitative goals that it is now coding complaint records to ease retrieval. It is also combining complaint data with feedback from call agents, weekly quality checks, customer surveys, and other sources. The 12-month plan has become a way of life.

In the future, the company says, it would like to create a feedback dashboard application that allows customer service agents to access historical quantitative data and comments regarding customers and service problems. This, it says, will empower agents to further transform customer complaints into valuable corporate assets.


Do you have a complaint handling success story that you could receive external recognition for? Celebrate your complaint handling heroes and set yourself apart from the competition by entering the UK Complaint Handling awards 2019. Now open for entries. Click here to see the categories and enter online now.