home Customer Experience, People Essential Energy powers up its commitment to customers

Essential Energy powers up its commitment to customers

Essential Energy is one of Australia’s largest electricity distribution networks, supplying power to 95 per cent of New South Wales (NSW) and parts of Southern Queensland. In the past, it was an engineering-based organisation with a focus on compliance. A few years ago, they decided to also become an organisation devoted to engaging and empowering its customers.

stakeholder and customer engagementRoger Marshall, Head of Stakeholder Engagement, comments, “Every five years we submit a regulatory proposal to the Australian Energy Regulator, highlighting our plans for building, operating and maintaining the electricity network. In preparing the 2019-2024 proposal, we established a comprehensive customer engagement and feedback platform.

“Surviving businesses have customers. Successful, thriving businesses have happy and engaged customers. We wanted to truly understand our customers and their expectations by placing the feedback we receive from customers at the very heart of the business.”

Listening to customers

Essential Energy has a very broad customer base, ranging from large industrial and commercial customers to councils, small business and residential customers. These customers are located across a broad geographical area spanning regional, rural and remote NSW, stretching from Broken Hill in the west to the NSW east coast.

Marshall says, “As part of the engagement program, we employed an external organisation to help us run a series of deliberative customer forums across our network area. We wanted the feedback to be objective, accurate and insightful. We believed that running the forums ourselves could introduce an element of bias where we would hear what we wanted to hear, not what we needed to hear.”

The size of the project was significant and the forums were delivered in a series of phases. In the first phase the business collaborated with some 3000 customers across NSW and the forums lasted for three to four hours. The purpose of this phase was to identify what was of importance and concern to the wide range of Essential Energy customers. The following broad priorities were identified:

  1. Safety
  2. Affordability and reliability
  3. Communication and service
  4. Innovation

“One of the first things we did was to test the engagement materials with a random selection of customers behind closed doors before sharing it with the customer forums. We wanted to be sure we were using clear simple language that would make sense to everyone.

“The next thing was to make sure we’d heard them correctly. Often what you hear in a forum may not translate to a final recommendation, so we checked our understanding with the customers at the forums.Then we put some propositions to them. If we did this, this is what it would be on your bill. If we did that, this is what it would mean in terms of reliability, etc.”

A significant challenge for the project was people’s awareness of Essential Energy’s function in delivering electricity. They generally know who their retailer is, who sends them their bill, but have little awareness of the distributor.

“As much as electricity is on the front page of the newspapers at the moment, it’s not an everyday dinner conversation. When they get their retailer’s bill everybody leans in and has something to say. But outside of that, there isn’t much understanding of the supply chain and our specific role to look after the poles, wires and substations, etc that make up the distribution network.”

The forums were a vehicle for educating and informing customers as much as being a platform for feedback. The education piece of the forums has delivered tremendous benefits in terms of brand clarity and customer understanding of Essential Energy’s services.

Open two-way communication

Marshall highlights the importance of always being accessible to customers and responding quickly to their enquiries and issues. “Adopting an outside-in approach has been critical for our customer and stakeholder engagement. We recognise that we don’t have all the answers and need to look outside the organisation for information before we can come up with a solution or a proposal. Our door is always open for customers.”

To this end, the organisation runs a 24 x 7 online forum called Essential Engagement. It’s through this forum that customers are kept up to date and informed on key issues and options affecting them. It provides a two-way communications channel that empowers customers and encourages their input in guiding the organisation’s future. Essential Energy also runs a 24 x 7 contact centre.

Acting on Feedback

“There’s no point spending all this time and resources on listening to your customers, if you’re not going to act on their feedback and comments”, says Marshall. “Our senior executives, managers and office and field teams attended the forums. From the start we said we had to be genuine about this. We can’t listen to feedback and then ignore it.”

Employees are trained on a customer commitment program that is built on the following three pillars:

  1. Listen – to customer needs and act on feedback
  2. Respect – customer safety and well-being, diversity, property and privacy
  3. Deliver – on our promises with clear, timely information and be easy to do business with.

These pillars are also criteria by which every complaint and customer interaction is categorised and business performance is tracked. This program ensures any issues or complaints are resolved to the highest satisfaction standard. “We run a quarterly Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) through an independent, external supplier. The results are shared and distributed throughout the organisation and are an important pillar for our Key Performance Indicators.”

For the future

In recognition of this industry leading approach to customer and stakeholder engagement, Essential Energy won the 2018 Energy Consumers Australia and Energy Networks Australia Consumer Engagement Award.

The award acknowledges the quality and impact of the Stakeholder and Customer Engagement Program on Essential Energy’s business model and how it treats its customers.
But the organisation doesn’t plan to rest on its laurels.

“We have our next phase of forums planned. These will focus on the needs and expectations of our different customer segments. Different customers have different priorities and requirements and our aim is to treat customers equally and provide them all with excellent service.”

Mark Atterby

Mark Atterby has 18 years media, publishing and content marketing experience.