Turning on the social messaging tap at Severn Water to boost customer contact experience

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan November 25, 2020 Audio version
Water utility Severn Trent is on an ongoing journey to overhaul the way it keeps in touch with customers, with WhatsApp emerging as the contact channel of choice.

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Severn Trent’s digital strategy is a never-ending journey.

That may be an all-too-familiar sentiment to many organizations embarked on multi-year transformation initiatives, but for Bill Wilson, Digital Channel Strategy Lead at UK utility Severn Trent, a provider of water to over 8 million people, it’s part of his daily reality in a good way:

I'm here to help our organization automate and optimize as many of our digital journeys as possible so that we can get our customers self-serving on those really easy to do repetitive stroke tasks, leaving our agents able to do a lot more of the value-added stuff.

At Severn Trent, an outstanding digital customer experience is judged against four key principles, he says:

It's got to be easy - minimum effort, maximum result. It's got to be quick - we’re running out of time, nobody’s got any time. It has to be seamless - take me from A to B, no unnecessary stops. And it needs to be trustworthy - informative, reliable and consistent. And what we try and do is behind every one of those outstanding digital experiences we make sure that we've got a customer-focused digital expert.

That’s important because today’s customers have considerably more power in their own right than ever before, which in turn has significant implications for an organization’s customer engagement thinking. Wilson explains:

Modernity and technology have ignited a shift in today's customer expectations. All the world's information and media is now online. The supercomputers that we carry around in our pockets mean that customers can reach us anytime that they choose to, anywhere. The power really has shifted from companies to consumers. Expectations have never been quite so high.


Against that backdrop, Severn Trent identifies 3 main drivers for change, he says - climate change,  channel growth and customer expectations:

The last 12 months we've seen some unprecedented challenges for the industry. Who remembers that really hot summer period that we had from May through June through to July? Add to that the fact that everybody was at home. Nobody was going abroad on holiday so everybody was at home, furloughed or not. They were cleaning their patios, they were hosing down their cars and we saw an unprecedented demand for hot water. We really needed to work out how we were going to communicate that to customers and help them to preserve water at a time when it was really important for us.

That increased water usage had an impact on channel usage and growth:

As we saw customers move to using more and more water and being more and more at home, we saw an unprecedented rise in the amount of customers that were choosing to contact us through our digital channels. Our website growth went astronomical, through the roof. Our social volumes increased by somewhere up to nearly 500%, and we quickly had to recognize how we could help our customers connect with our agents and how could we help our agents connect with our customers when they were potentially at home as well?

Add to this mix a need to be recognized as being amongst the leading customer service organizations, in this case to win marks from a C-MeX [Customer Measure of Experience] perspective, a metric used by industry regulator Ofwat. Wilson says:

We're doing it because we're being led by our customer. We've been driven by insight, by our customers behavior, by what their preferences and channel choices are. We are an organization that's channel agnostic. We'll never turn our customer channel off. We'll always leave those channels open. But we are seeing a big shift from our customers into these digital spaces.


As it stands, Severn Trent has three main converging customer-centric strategies, Wilson explains:

We've got our web strategy, which is our web self-service portal which is how our customers self-serve on on the billing side of their water payments, and also our self service operations, if they've got a problem, if they need to report a leak or if they've spotted a leak.  Our second strategy is all around social and for us that's about being always on. And the third part is our conversation strategy and that was for us a newer thing which was us moving from synchronous channel of chat into that asynchronous channel of messaging. Shift has definitely happened. In the last year we've now seen 8.2 million customers visiting our website. We have 4 million registered accounts, of which over 2 million have registered to make payments via self-serve through our self-service portal. Our bill payment value has increased by over £10 million over the year. We're getting close now to taking £1 million in a day. We've seen a huge growth in our web chats. From a social perspective, we've seen a lot more increase in followers and posts.

Supporting all this, a social transformation program began around 2 years ago. Wilson recalls:

We looked at our content. There was no real strategy around it, so we developed and worked with our marketing communications team and we now have always-on content. So whether or not we're in the middle of a major heat wave, freeze, thaw or a major incident, we will always be putting out content. We try and build that content around our business performance indicators and we will continue to push that out regularly on a daily basis. And we'll make that different as well. So content for Facebook is different than the content on Twitter, which is a different sort of content on LinkedIn and now we've got Instagram coming online as well.

There was also a need to be more responsive, faster and increasingly proactive, he adds, noting that this brought structural and operational changes:

We created a new team with a view to detaching them from the organization, directly in the operation and focusing purely on handling social conversations. We wanted them to talk more so that they could deal with all the queries that were coming in. We wanted them to be quicker because we want to be best in the industry for our speed of response.

We wanted them to join conversations that we previously ignored. We've got listening capability in our platform that means that if a customer doesn't directly tag us, we can still see that a conversation is happening and we can join those conversations. These 12 people aren't just literally sat there all day going, ‘Respond, respond, respond!’. They're going out there looking for conversations and they can join and help find some of that content for us.

An objective here was to create digital alignment, he says:

We needed to get our social media team aligned with our website team, so that as and when incidents occur and we see this huge increase in customers coming to our social channels, our website is serving incident banners to guide those customers to the best place to go….Our ‘always on’ strategy means that more and more customers now trust us as a reliable source of information. We can use a really targeted approach when we're in that incident mode, so even though certain customers might not be following us on Facebook or Twitter, we use targeted advertising to reach out to those people when there's an incident in the areas.

A particular goal for Wilson was what he calls the personal touch:

That degree of flexibility that we've given to our teams means that they feel really empowered to have meaningful conversations and not just churning, which is one of the things I really don't like in social, where people just churn information and content. I want them to have that personal touch. We need it to align our messages.

Measuring success

To make sure all of this is delivering results, there has also been a focus on tracking metrics:

We've seen some real overall success. During the pandemic, we would normally in a month receive around 25,000 inbound messages. And in just two days during the lockdown heat wave, we saw 25,000, a month's worth of contact in two days. We very quickly worked within the organization and stood up 130 'social warriors' to support the team. We got them online. They were able to get on the platform and we were able to train them remotely and help us to maintain our response rate, as well as our customer service.

The metrics around messaging has thrown up similar positive numbers,  Wilson says:

Our messaging journey started, probably about six years ago, when we implemented web chat. At the time, it was great because that was a part of the whole [idea of] you can talk to two customers rather than one, speaking to more people at the same time. So we started that journey. We started to build that journey to the point where we got to around about 25,000 to 30,000 customers coming through to us on a monthly basis.

That was good, but there was room to do more, he recalls:

Particularly during the [COVID] lockdown we found ourselves wanting to open up more channels. We started to explore how we could get into web messaging, WhatsApp, and SMS to help us to remove some of that friction that is in play by offering automated guided optimization, really making the messaging journey seamless. Since implementation, we've seen a 20%, increase in customer satisfaction. Customers absolutely love the fact that they can WhatsApp us. There isn't an expectation that they can get an immediate response. They're happy to wait  and they're happy to receive content that we can send to them back through their mobile device.

We have seen a two times increase in agent efficiency. Even though we're working them hard it's led to them being happier at work as well, because we've seen a 50% decrease in agent attrition. Now, I'm not going to claim all of that 50% because obviously we're going through a pandemic and people aren't willing necessarily to change jobs at the pace at which they would do.

But the numbers over the past six months are impressive - 100,000 WhatsApp conversations vs 25,000 SMS conversations. There’s one conclusion, argues Wilson:

We quickly found that WhatsApp is definitely the channel that our customers want to talk to us on. We've trained 250 agents, because we started to roll this out into some of our back office teams. So in the past where we would see customers coming in to our front office and then they would need more information from our back office. We would probably send an email and advise the customer that they'll be contacted in the next five days. Now we're able to seamlessly transfer the customer straight back through into our back office, which is increasing our first call resolution, which is increasing our C-Sat with our customers.