Independent Energy Supplies

The protracted troubles in Eastern Ukraine are hopefully moving towards a peaceful resolution with the news that the rebels will be granted autonomy to rule their region. However despite this progress we are far from a harmonious long-term solution that will increase confidence in Europe achieving a sustainable supply of natural gas.  A clear signal that the instability of supply can be seen in data released by Gas Storage Europe over the weekend which indicates Ukraine increasing its natural gas reserves by 1.7% to 16.22 billion cubic meters in an attempt to survive an approaching bitter winter without Russian supply by developing  its domestic production and importing from the EU.

As the EU sanctions imposed on Russia continue to increase in their reach and severity, the EU’s supply of natural gas is decreasing as reported by Austria who are the fourth EU country to report a slowdown in Russian gas deliveries this week, after Slovakia, Germany and Poland were also hit by reductions.  It is fair to assume that other countries in the EU will report reductions which in turn place greater strain on the ability of each EU country, including the UK, to maintain a sustainable schedule of supply to meet the forecasted demand as the nights draw in and energy consumption rises to heat homes, businesses, schools and hospitals.

We have all witnessed customer frustration within the UK energy sector as people demand to know why prices only ever seem to go up despite the wholesale prices going up and down and there is a growing amount of customer cynicism towards the cost of their energy.

Will customers demand to know how their suppliers intend to continue their supply in the coming years or is that level of interest within the customer base simply not there?

The growth of renewable energy and green tariffs where customers are given the option to pay a subsidy for a portion of their energy to come from renewable sources shows there is interest from the customer but I doubt that it has reached a level where energy future proofing is a coffee morning topic of choice.

What is the answer to the UK’s dependency on imported natural Gas?  Some would say that the UK should learn from our American cousins and explore the resources that are locked away in shale rock immediately beneath our feet, I am of course referring to the process of fracking where a mix of high pressure water and chemicals are forced into the ground to release the natural gas deposits which exist in the UK.  The Americans have drastically reduced their own dependency of imported suppliers, created jobs and wealth and set a great example for other countries who are also blessed with their own reserves.  However, the ugly name of Fracking evokes an angry response from many people who are fearful of the, as yet unknown long-term impact of the process and don’t want to see the picturesque landscapes in the South East, where the majority of the deposits lie, being destroyed to quench our never ending thirst for energy.

What about a nuclear solution?  You only have to look back to the 1990s when the nuclear industry provided 25% of the UK’s energy needs but the landscape of today is significantly different as only 18% now comes from this source and that figure is falling due to the aging estate of nuclear power plants.  Alarmingly all but one of our current plants will have been retired by 2023 – just 9 years!  The investment needed to create new nuclear facilities is immense and much like with fracking there isn’t a long list of communities queuing up to be the next location for the nuclear plants of the future. Again this is understandable due to the disasters at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 but is it time to once again look to the nuclear industry to step up its production?

Whilst many of the options available to us aren’t inexpensive nor easy and are in fact fraught with high costs, difficulties and dangers what is blatantly obvious is the need for the UK to do something to begin to plug the deficit. We simply can’t do nothing and hope that the problem will go away because it won’t, it will only get worse.  If the situation is allowed to get worse can we expect power outages in the UK leading to a rise in the number of customer complaints and more customers contacting their suppliers to find out why their boilers are cold and the hot tap is running cold.

How would our energy suppliers handle customers when there is no simple solution within the gift of the customer service team?  Is now the time for customers to demand future-proofing? I think it is.  The power of the customer has invoked monumental changes in the financial services sector where short term goals reigned almighty and it may well be left to the customer once again to lead the charge.

Activists protest fracking outside Gov. Cuomo's office, New York

 Photo by Credo licensed under Creative Commons

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Which kind of business do you think Ford is in?

What kind of business do you think that the Ford Motor Company is involved in? Perhaps the easy answer is in the name – they manufacture and sell motor vehicles.

Wrong. Some people may still consider Ford to be a manufacturing company, but ask anyone within the Ford team and they will talk much more about their retail operation. Ford is a retailer that stocks cars – brand new on order from a factory for Ford-branded vehicles, but also the cars of their rivals as ‘nearly-new’ vehicles. At a recent Market Force event in London, Celia Pronto, Marketing and E-Commerce Director at Ford Retail expanded on the ‘Trust Ford’ mantra that now permeates all aspects of their organisation as a retail business first with a significant customer experience manifesto.

Ford is a retail company with a significant financial service operation too, designed to help customers buy those vehicles. Of course they design and build cars, but they need to keep the idea of being a retailer at the forefront of their business strategy so they can continue to prosper.

The production of cars that don’t sell because a company sees itself first as a manufacturer is a story that has, unfortunately, been repeated many times in the automotive and other sectors.

The same applies to companies like ours. When I attend conferences or other industry events, I wince when I hear people corral us as the ‘outsourcing industry’ or ‘call centre business’. We are not a contact centre company, that is simply apparatus; we are involved in the business of helping people by improving the customer experiences offered by our clients.

Offering better customer experiences certainly involves answering calls, answering emails, handling web chat, social media enquiries and monitoring, and our clients outsource many of those tasks to our team, but there is no such thing as an ‘outsourcing call centre industry’. There are simply partners – like us – who are experts in how to improve customer service that ensures customer experiences transform brand engagement into brand advocacy.

We are in the customer experience management industry. We make life easier for customers across all industries and thereby help differentiate our clients in their vertical market space.

What do you think about how customer service companies are described? Leave a comment here or tweet me on @aniederer.

Waiting for customers


Photo by M Heigl licensed under Creative Commons

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What is the future for mobile phone retail in the UK?

UK phone retailer Phones 4 U has called in the administrator putting 5,596 jobs at risk today. It’s a tragedy for all those who work in the stores and for the British High Street in general as all 550 stores will be closed immediately until the administrator can work out what to do about the private-equity owned company.

The basic business model of phone retailers like Phones 4 U has been around since the 80s and early 90s when mobile phones became popular. They offer a range of handsets and packages from all the different service providers meaning the customer can easily compare package with an expert guide in a High Street store.

But there are two major changes in the market that have reduced the attractiveness of this business model.

First, the phone companies are eager to deal direct with customers. All the major service providers have their own store networks now and so if they can deal direct – and avoid paying commission to a retailer – then that’s what they would rather do. Vodafone recently cancelled their contract with Phones 4 U, leaving them with only packages from EE on offer. EE just decided to also withdraw their packages from Phones 4 U, triggering the move to administration.

“If the mobile network operators decline to supply us, we do not have a business,” said Phones 4u Chief Executive David Kassler.

But the way that consumers gather information on a potential purchase today has also changed. A few clicks on a price comparison website is all that is required now to find the best package for your particular needs – there is far less need to use a retailer that aggregates all the packages from various networks because it takes no time at all for the customer to compare the networks.

Dixons Carphone is the main beneficiary of the demise of Phones 4 U. On the surface it would seem that their business model is just as vulnerable to change, however they are far bigger and now have an effective monopoly in the UK market. Not so long ago, Vodafone tried withdrawing their packages from Dixons Carphone and noticed a serious drop in sales that caused them to renew the partnership.

As I have written before, the networks will ultimately be differentiating themselves based on content and services, rather than minutes and texts. This means that everyone in the mobile phone business needs to be considering how the business model will work in future – for retailers and networks alike.

Phones 4 U, Croydon, London CR0

Photo by Kake licensed under Creative Commons

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Contact centre of the future – part two

The way that customers interact with brands is changing fast. In fact, it could be argued that the entire relationship betweens brands and customers has been revolution in the past six or seven years for a couple of important reasons.

First, is because of the mobile Internet. Apple launched their iPhone in 2007 and it catapulted the handset manufacturers into a new world where people could be online all the time, accessing services via the web and apps.

Do you remember using the mobile Internet before Apple really changed the rules of the game? It was clunky, slow, and relied on special mobile versions of web pages being available. It was not a good experience and now there is genuine competition to Apple from Android and Microsoft that experience is getting so good that most people now use a mobile device as their primary route to access the Internet.

Second is the growth in the number of channels that can be used to support customers – particularly via social networks, blogs, and forums or review sites. Customers used to be channelled into a specific place where they could ask for information or register a complaint – a free phone number or specific email address. Now a customer will often talk about a brand without ever directly copying the company in on a conversation – organisations need to monitor the Internet for discussions about their brand, products, or services so they can answer queries.

Both of these major changes have taken place since 2007 – when the iPhone was launched and when the biggest social networks we see now, Facebook and Twitter, really started to grow significantly.

Because of these changes, the way that customers interact with brands has changed. It’s far more usual now to be receiving questions pre-sale, to see customers comparing prices or checking reviews when in the process of making a purchase, and using various channels to ask questions or make complaints post-sale.

This is very different from the days when customer support meant answering the phone to handle queries and complaints after a sale has already been made. Supporting customers now involves looking after the prospective customers as well as those who have made a purchase and this is elevating the status and importance of the customer service function.

The work of customer service agents supporting customers on social media channels is generally transparent – replying to tweets or answering a query on a Facebook wall are actions that can be seen by other customers. When a customer is delighted by the way they have been treated, they often share the interaction with their own friends.

The work of the customer service team has not only become more complex, involving support across dozens of channels, but it now encompasses the work of the marketing and sales teams. In many companies the head of marketing is now taking control of customer service strategies.

This is great news for anyone starting out in a customer service career now because the avenues available for personal development are getting more interesting. There is now a direct connection between starting out as an agent in the contact centre and being the group director of marketing!



Photo by Yeray Hdez Guerra licensed under Creative Commons

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The power of ‘delete’ and what it means for brands.

Last December I deleted my Facebook account. I was an avid user in both a personal and professional capacity. Then I somehow managed to contract strep pneumonia and spent nine days in hospital without access to Facebook during which time all my visitors, bar one, were neither users nor ‘friends’ on Facebook or any other social media.

That made me think. Who was driving? Me or Mark Zuckerberg?

On returning home I decided to delete my Facebook account. Its a pretty straightforward affair, I downloaded a file with all my data in it and then I hit delete, then I was asked several times if I REALLY MEANT IT and finally, I was gone.

People are now waking up to their individual sense of power over their personal data, and its quickly becoming a hot topic for brands as they finally begin to deploy the systems that can crunch the numbers and deliver the analysis that is so important to strategies for growth. But just when they begin to see the payback on their investment, customers are finding ‘invisibility cloaks’ to hide themselves often by not revealing who they actually are in the first place.

For example, for security reasons, I never provide my actual birth date on any sign up form, just the year, and how much worse are the younger generation signing up for game sites and social media platforms with made up names (and often with a much older, fictitious year of birth)? By the time they are full tax payers and potential customers they will be signing on and shopping online as avatars  in virtual malls and even inside games. In addition, they will be making their purchases in Bitcoin and probably banking with Google!

Many consumers are already behaving in a this way, either giving incorrect information or entirely masking their identity. This issue of privacy is the largest chink in the armour for every social network. Facebook has over half of all the Internet users in the world as active users and has already started exploring business models beyond just connecting friends. But the value of these systems exists mainly in the data they have on consumers. Data after all, as a corporate currency, is only of long term use when it reflects the ‘real’ behaviours of ‘real’ customers with constants in their customer profile.

Brands need to be careful in their headlong rush to work with social channels. There is a need of course to build customer experience that acknowledges this is where customers want to talk about products, but building a deeper relationship based on data the customer is giving away – wittingly or unwittingly – is a path that should be taken with caution.



Photo by Scott Beale licensed under Creative Commons

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Nine ways to measure social media impact

Many customer service directors are still struggling to measure the impact of social media on their business. They can see that it is essential to support customers using these channels because that’s where the customers want to interact, but what metrics can be used to measure if all that online activity is worthwhile?

Of course this changes from one business to another so perhaps it is better to turn the problem around and to consider what you can achieve by communicating with customers in this way – what are the opportunities?

Here’s nine principals one of our retail clients uses as a guide to all that they expect from their social communications with customers:

  • We want to reach customers that would not otherwise be reached – for example, the younger generation.
  • We want to protect and develop our brand.
  • We want to generate positive PR naturally through customers sharing stories about the brand.
  • We want to promote excellent customer care and advocacy.
  • We want to promote and support specific brand campaigns.
  • We want to offer choice to the customer by integrating social into other communication channels.
  • We want to track customer complaints.
  • We want to spot buying trends so we can alert the marketing team.
  • We want to feel customer sentiment directly.

This simple list demonstrates that the impact of social communications is diverse. True engagement is about far more than answering complaints. Understanding how social media and the online ‘lives’ of customers is weaved into the virtual tapestry of your brand is crucial.

Be where your customers are and you can learn a lot from them – not least how to increase your sales. And the future? Take the list then re-imagine it in a virtual world, because the next evolution will see your customers interacting with you no longer as Mr Benn of 52 Festive Road, but as avatars, perhaps several – but that’s for another day!

3300003 LEGO Brand Retail Store (1)

Photo by Andrew Becraft licensed under Creative Commons

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Be where your customers are right now

The August bank holiday is gone. Summer is over and now were coasting to the end of another year. But for a retailer this is the build up to the golden quarter that most likely began once the last one ended in January or February. The run-up to Christmas and the New Year is when the tills really start ringing!

But this period of the year should not only be about sales alone. The year on year growth in online sales means that the customer journey is evolving. You need to be prepared, you need to be thinking about how to optimise that journey for a number of reasons:

With all that extra business there is a great opportunity, but also danger. If you are still not getting the customer journey right then your customers are telling their friends – and they are telling their friends. Review sites, customer forums, social networks – they are all where customers are talking about your brand and products right now.

If you get the customer journey wrong then it will not just dampen sales this quarter, it can have long-lasting consequences. Customers will defect, and will publish their experience ensuring that future searches for information about your brand find those stories.  It is a time to win new advocates, reward loyalty and establish long standing relationships.

The trick is to think about the customer journey and to be where they are today. Not where they used to be or where you hope they will be, or where an industry guru says they will be in the future – find where your customers are right now and focus on delivering this generation customer service.

Be where your customers are. The companies that get this right will be increasingly profitable.

Walmart Customer Selects a Fabric Reintroduced to Product Mix


Photo by Walmart licensed under Creative Commons

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