How To - Utilities and Social Listening: 5 Ways to Power Your Business Strategy

July 08, 2015

Data is changing the utilities industry. From smart meters to social media, there is more data at the disposal of utilities companies than ever before. On the social web, the increase in the amount of data is directly linked to the increase in the number of media channels that are now used to discuss utilities. Aside from the vast quantities of “social data” produced by social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn there are also blogs, forums and an ever increasing number of online news websites. This information is generally unstructured with mentions of utilities companies coming in all shapes and sizes: from direct mentions including the company name to replies to a company Twitter account or comments on a forum.

For utilities companies in particular, understanding trends and public sentiment online can have important business implications. For example in countries where customers have a choice as to which utilities provider they opt for, understanding perception towards your brand or the industry in general can help to combat customer churn. For the UK market, the push to switch provider for the best energy deal is not just something promoted by price comparison sites but also industry watchdogs like Ofgem and even the UK Prime Minister.

Online discussions about utilities are also wide ranging. The online public isn’t always talking about price rises or customer service but also about campaigns to save energy for environmental purposes or debate about the impact that falling oil prices will have on energy shares. All of these topics can have a significant influence not just on how utilities companies interact with their customers but also on the strategic decisions that businesses make.

With energy demand slowing down in the OECD and energy efficiency increasing alongside the rise of smart grids and cheaper renewables, energy companies in particular need to discover new ways to gain a competitive edge

Social Data Intelligence is the way companies can make sense of all this information. It involves careful social listening through tracking the constant flow of social data from social networks, online news, blogs and forums and applying in-depth social media analytics to analyse and order this information in a way that is a) easy to understand and b) provides insights that can be used to direct decision making.

This How-To guide will look at the various ways that utilities companies can use social media analytics to: improve customer service, identify potential churn, track industry trends, monitor crises and understand market opinion.

1. EVALUATING CUSTOMER SERVICE PERFORMANCE

Social media has given consumers more power than ever before to air their views to a wide audience on any given topic. Electricity, gas and water are of course essential features of modern life and any problems in their provision quickly become a source of discontent. Whereas previously such grievances would have been the problem of the customer service departments of energy companies, consumer organisations and sympathetic friends, family and colleagues, now annoyance and anger is distributed worldwide with one click.

Being able to react quickly to customer complaints on social media is also pivotal. Research from Edison suggests that customers expect a response within 60 minutes so staying on top of this with effective social listening is key.

And it is not all about negativity. As much as negative comment and dissatisfaction must be monitored, judged and handled quickly and respectfully, such open connections to customers means both an opportunity to quickly rectify and improve as well as a chance to monitor this hitherto unknown customer opinion to look for broader patters in order to further aid improvement.

1.1 Analyse Twitter to gauge sentiment

A good starting point is to do a sentiment analysis on Twitter.  This is because a) most major energy companies have a Twitter feed dedicated to handling customer service enquiries and b) outside of telephone calls, it is the most direct link that utilities customers have to a customer service representative. This helps to understand how customer service channels are performing in response to the competition.

  • Sentiment analysis for UK Big 6 energy providers: Jan 20, 2015 - Feb 18, 2015

Looking at the Big 6 UK energy companies customer service channels it is clear to see that over the last month, nPower’s customer service has experienced the highest level of negativity and the lowest level of positivity over the last 30 days. By contrast, EDF Energy’s customer service channel is showing the highest level of positive sentiment and the lowest level of negative sentiment, a good opening indication that they are doing something right. 

  • Emotions cloud for Big 6 energy providers: Jan 20, 2015 - Feb 18, 2015

The theme cloud above consists of a variety of positive and negative “emotion” words linked to the customer service channels of the big 6 UK energy providers. Emotions are mixed, with a slightly higher proportion of negative comments but also some positivity such as “helpful”, “brilliant” and “excellent”. More specific  negative words such as “confused” and “difficult” can also help to get an idea of the particular aspects of the service or problem that are causing trouble. 

1.2 Understanding the causes of negative and positive sentiment

From this point it is important to dig deeper to discover the causes of this negative sentiment.

  • Theme cloud for nPower Twitter customer service channel: Jan 20, 2015 - Feb 18, 2015

Examining the results, aside from general customer service problem terms like “customer”, “complaints” and “refund”, the main identifiable causes of discontent appear to be a mixture of account problems, meter issues and delays. For catch all terms such as “account trouble” it may even be worth going a further step to analyse the specific cause of the problem:

  • Examples of different types of “account” problems posted to customer service channels of energy providers

1.3 Gleaning customer insights from forums

For customers of utilities companies, consumer forums are a hotbed of discussion with people taking to larger forums like those at personal finance advice site MoneySavingExpert to try and find answers to their particular problems. Although many will take to short form sites such as Twitter to complain, for advice forums can be a better channel for customers to get more detailed information from other customers. As a result, they are also a gold mine of information for utilities companies who want to find out exactly what troubles customers are having either with their own service or that of their competitors

  • Mention volume for UK energy providers on selection of consumer forums: Feb 4, 2015 - March 5, 2015

The chart above shows us that nPower and British Gas are the most discussed companies on forums that discuss energy companies and perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant amount of the discussion surrounding energy companies on forums is negative:

  • Sentiment analysis of UK energy providers: Feb 4, 2015 - March 5, 2015

If we take the example of nPower who had a relatively high level of negative sentiment (Note: Ecotricity and First:Utility had higher negative sentiment but a low number of overall mentions) companies can then take a closer look to find issues that may be particularly worrying and require more urgent action:

  • nPower theme cloud for forum mentions: Feb 4, 2015 - March 5, 2015

In this case part of the problem is an allegation that nPower fabricated a meter reading, a potentially serious allegation if true and one that may need to be examined quickly to ensure it gets rectified or dispelled before it develops into a larger problem.

1.4 Sending information to the right departments

Once a problem area or even a specific customer with a problem has been identified, this issue can then be flagged up and immediately distributed to relevant departments so they will be notified straight away if any such activity occurs. For example, reports can be sent to the finance department if it is a billing issue, technical support if there is an issue with the online account system and this can all be automated through the creation of automatic alerts:

  • Examples of possible alerts that can be set up using Talkwalker

By creating a robust alerting system, utilities companies can make sure that they are instantly made aware of any potential problems and get the appropriate department working on a solution immediately.

Customer service has long been a key issue for utilities companies. Social listening can help to ensure that positive and negative reaction towards customer service channels is quantified, understood and then rectified  (or amplified in case of positivity) ensuring the highest possible levels of customer satisfaction. 

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