The Utilities sector suffered two major blows in 2022. As 2021 drew to a close, the energy group Bohemia Energy ceased operations; consequently, hundreds of thousands of customers had to seek a new supplier, causing energy prices to rise briefly at the end of the year. Later in 2022, Russia shut off gas supplies to Europe, causing massive market upheaval and a price hike. Some customers reflected this situation in their comments. Gone are the days when it was almost no problem to switch supplier. Customers are just grateful to have one and do not think too much about changing. Brands gradually reacted to these events, but only in time will we be able to evaluate how this whole episode was handled.
This year, Innogy emerged as the sector winner for the fourth time, followed by ČEZ. The Innogy brand, which was created from RWE a few years ago, likely continued to benefit from this step, gaining a brand new name. Conversely, ČEZ benefits from market stability and years of tradition. Customers of both providers emphasized that they could manage all important issues online – from amending amounts paid in advance to accessing documents. A growing numbers of clients also praised staff helpfulness and speedy resolution of requests, particularly at E.ON, which recorded an above average improvement in the rankings compared to last year. E.ON stands out thanks to innovative TV advertising, and the company kept communicating with clients even during the energy crisis. Consequently, together with the other sector leaders, it featured in the top 100 rankings.
Mass digitalization continues to sweep through the sector, presenting very obvious opportunities to serve customers via applications and online platforms. The ability to resolve basic tasks and larger online transactions is the most common topic in positive reviews. Digitalization also benefits the Time and Effort pillar, the strongest in the sector. Although Utilities once again ranked last on the sector list, it had improved its score slightly year-on-year especially at the customer service level.
If we look at the unfavourable reviews of the sector, the most common complaint is the increase in prices and company ossification. With the first, such a development is difficult to predict and influence because of circumstances, but with the second, energy providers are slowly but surely shaking off their reputation as outdated dinosaurs. Ever clearer online communication and digitalization of processes are aiding this improvement.
People have become accustomed to managing their lives through applications and expect a customer-friendly approach and simplicity from energy providers. Innogy’s favoured strategy is paying off: customers commend both the easy-to-navigate Innosvět application and the helpfulness and expertise of branch staff. Increasingly, however, customers visit branches only if they cannot or do not want to resolve a matter online.
The well-coordinated online and offline communication is also highlighted by the customers of ČEZ, which also took a digital step forward again this year. It launched the new Proud (Current) application, through which the energy provider pledges to improve overall customer service. The application is easy to navigate and offers many practical functions, from managing requests, a meter self-read service and information on outages and defects to itemized billing or the switch to low tariff rates.
At E.ON, requests and problems can be resolved remotely, and important information can be obtained this way. The company aims at the simplicity of operation, which comes as a pleasant surprise to clients. Everything essential can be resolved via the Energie24 website or app.
The current move towards concepts such as alternative and renewable energy sources is not just being made for environmental reasons but increasingly because of energy dependence and self-sufficiency factors. The situation suggests that both reasons will be a critical issue for the sector’s future direction. One of the most prominent players in this direction is ČEZ; besides conventional services, the company offers the installation of alternative and modern ways to generate or transfer energy, such as photovoltaic panels and heat pumps.
Additionally, ČEZ also supports electromobility, currently managing the densest network of charging stations for electric vehicles (approximately 35 per cent of all stations), which it continues to build. E.ON also has reasons to be proud in this regard: it manages approximately 180 stations and is dedicated to raising awareness of electromobility through the eon-drive.cz website.
„I’m a long-term client and am completely satisfied. I managed the billing and thanks to the fixed prices, I didn’t have to pay more in advances. Everything can be done electronically, but they also have great customer service, which is always easily accessible.“
Woman, 60, Innogy
„Always a positive attitude. They respond quickly to customers and their requests, and provide continuous information during the billing period. Great app.“
Man, 49, ČEZ
„Previously, when I needed anything from ČEZ, I dealt with them over the phone. Today I use their app (můjčez.cz), where I do absolutely everything. It’s all set up in a very smart way.“
Woman 74, ČEZ
„Through the application, I discovered whether I would have an overpayment or an underpayment when it came to my energy bill. I was amazed it was even possible to find out this way. And I was also very surprised by the result.“
Woman, 35, E.ON
„The current electricity and gas supply services, combined with the inspections of and repairs to appliances and chimneys, are excellent. The proposed new gas prices were not exactly pleasant, but hopefully the situation will improve next year. We aren’t considering switching suppliers because otherwise the company’s approach is solid.“
Man, 77, E.ON
Uncertainty about the prices and availability of energy is reverberating around the entire sector. Clients too are reflecting the price increase in their comments. But they are often forgiving, not perceiving the situation as a supplier error. Company crisis communications, which explains to clients why prices have increased and informs them about how to save money, have also helped in this regard, for instance the E.ON advisory service on the E.ON website. It provides straightforward advice on saving, including specific examples and tips on smart elements and appliances. On its website, ČEZ answers questions, explains terms such as price capping and cost-saving tariffs, and dispels myths about price increases. Similarly, sector leader Innogy provides clear information and advice.
No one can avoid price increases. However, explaining this fact to customers and whether in the future firms can do so clearly and convincingly will determine a company’s future and success. In a difficult situation, another way of retaining customers can be an extra “surprise” that the customer will appreciate, whether a new function in the application, or help from a technician.
The war in Ukraine raised many issues that the Utilities sector must address. Today, customers often have no choice between suppliers, and are just grateful to have a provider, even if they have to pay prices over which they have no control. Suppliers thus find themselves in a difficult situation: they face uncertainty in energy prices but also an advantageous position vis-à-vis their customers, who have little say in who will supply them. Therefore, constantly communicating empathetically is crucial, especially now that the sector is experiencing challenging times.
Another option is to bundle services to make them more advantageous for the provider and customers.
In technology and services, the trend of recent years has been towards local solutions. Some companies in the Utilities sector have been assembling and installing solar panels, heat pumps and recuperation units. Maintaining a high level of service of them presents a considerable challenge because they are often outsourced. Overall, managing the customer experience has become slightly complicated given the labour market. The challenge in the days ahead is how companies in this sector will tackle this issue and meet customer expectations.
„An easy-to-navigate website. After setting up an account, you don’t need to visit a bricks and mortar branch or contact the helpline. Apart from the company’s prices, I’m extremely happy with it.“
Woman, 44, Innogy
„It takes them ages to sort anything out, and one side doesn’t know what the other is doing. You report a change of address to the company, but they ignore it and don’t even tell you about it, so you end up not getting an invoice. Then you get a reminder, and then they try to claim the money, which takes three months. Then they actually tell you that you’ll receive the overpayment in cash, even though you pay everything online…“
Woman, 26, X Company