Wales & West Utilities: the power of complaints

“The ServiceMark process was really helpful, and the results were fascinating. It highlighted some gaps in communication that we weren't aware of, and we found our frontline service providers were more knowledgeable and positive than some pockets of management. The support from the Institute was great, and our improvement plan included actions we would never have thought of.”

What do you do when the way you respond to customer complaints could gain or lose your company millions of pounds?

This was the dilemma facing Wales & West Utilities, the £1.5 billion gas distribution network whose 35,000 km of pipelines supply 7.4 million people across one sixth of the UK.

For these customers, WWU supplies the emergency engineers sent if they smell gas, the engineers who may install or move their gas meter and, occasionally, the company who wants to dig up their driveways or road to replace old, metallic pipes with a safer and longer-lasting alternative.

It's the kind of intrusive work that can lead to complaints and, with industry regulator OFGEM rewarding or penalising companies potentially millions of pounds based upon customer satisfaction – including complaint resolution – the stakes for WWU service staff are extremely high.

“Positive attitude and assurance”

To make matters more complicated, complaints commonly received at the company's headquarters in Newport, South Wales, are often based upon misunderstandings, and difficult to fix.

Customer service manager Claire Edwards explains: “We are not perfect, so of course we get complaints over tangible problems like property damage or missed appointments, but more often it's things we can't do anything about.”

“For example, if there's a gas leak inside a customer’s property or a report of carbon monoxide , we are legally required to turn off the supply in many cases – but once we've done that, if the problem is on the internal pipework or with the customer's appliance, we are not actually allowed to fix it. They have to call a qualified engineer of their own, and that's understandably frustrating.”

Nonetheless, complaints team leader Philip Collins points out: “It's important to take every complaint incredibly seriously from the very beginning. No matter whose fault it is, that customer’s experience is that something has gone wrong. So it’s about going away with a positive attitude and an assurance that it’s not going to happen again.”

The challenge intensified further when OFGEM broadened its definition of a complaint to include any expression of dissatisfaction by a customer, however brief or informal. Officially recorded complaints more than trebled, from 60 per month to 200. To maintain high standards, every member of staff would need to know the correct complaint logging procedure, and be trained and ready to respond.

“See what other sectors do”

WWU recognised it needed support and, after a selection process, chose to join the Institute of Customer Service.

“I did some research into professional bodies and how they could help businesses like ours improve complaint handling,” says Claire.

In particular, the company was able to make good use of the Institute's exclusive research into UK complaints handling trends, including in-depth analysis and a toolkit to develop a model procedure. WWU team members also attended the Institute’s complaints masterclass in Cardiff, to share complaints handling best practice with representatives from other industries.

“It’s very interesting to see what the other sectors do,” says Claire. “Especially ones that are not regulated, as it’s up to them how they handle their complaints.”

Alongside a programme of workshops and training, WWU shifted its emphasis from focusing on volumes of complaints received, to how well they're resolved. In this blame-free environment, finding a solution became a team effort, as well as identifying any lessons to be learned.

Claire continues: “In previous years, complaints were seen negatively, but now we are trying to change the culture so people see them as a positive opportunity to identify where we could do things better.”

“Even if it's something we can't solve directly, our aim is to give the customer a better overall view of the company than if they hadn't had cause to complain. We want to show empathy, friendliness, reliability and speed. We keep people in touch, and always follow up, to ask if they're now happy for us to close the complaint down.”

“More often than not, they're really happy. And that gives the team a sense of achievement.”

“A huge impact”

WWU is one of the market leaders for complaints handling performance, and has been asked by National Grid Metering to share its learning to bring other service providers up to a similar level. To keep improving, it needed to compare its performance more widely.

So as well as harnessing the Institute's complaints handling expertise, WWU took the opportunity to understand its overall performance in a broader context, by seeking ServiceMark accreditation.

Claire says: “The ServiceMark process was really helpful, and the results were fascinating. It highlighted some gaps in communication that we weren't aware of, and we found our frontline service providers were more knowledgeable and positive than some pockets of management. The support from the Institute was great, and our improvement plan included actions we would never have thought of.”

“We were also able to make great use of our customers' responses. We've put their words all over the entrance doors at our head office, as a reminder. ServiceMark has had a huge impact.”

“Really inspiring.”

Claire is unequivocal that the improvements to Wales & West, both culturally and financially, have made joining the Institute great value.

Performance against OFGEM's scoring framework has improved steadily, year-on-year, earning the company good financial rewards for Customer Satisfaction levels, where some other networks have been fined. The improvement in last year's complaint handling ensured WWU stayed well away from the realms of penalty.

“I’d definitely recommend that companies join the Institute,” says Claire.

“It gives you access to a wealth of opportunities and benchmarking, and I think that’s where we get the biggest benefit. The culture and customer satisfaction measures, and the improvement plan were all hugely helpful, and we may start looking at the professional qualifications next year. It’s quite exciting!

“We’ve also been to the annual conferences and some of the speeches there have been really inspiring. We came home with a lot of ideas.”

The reaction from customers has been significant, too.

“Customers sometimes write to our chief executive and say ‘Wow! We weren’t expecting a service like that when we made a complaint. Some companies your size fob customers off, so we were really surprised.’ Actually, we get a lot of great commendations on the back of our complaints.”