Southern Water is one of the UK’s biggest water and sewerage companies and is owned by Greensands Investments Limited, a consortium owned in turn by pension and infrastructure funds. Every day, Southern Water supplies the south of England – Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – with 535 million liter of drinking water. The company also collects and recycles 700 million liter of waste water.
Southern Water currently has a monopoly in the water market. There are competitors that deliver the same services, but customers themselves are unable to choose the supplier.
“But things are changing too for our commercial customers. And even though it’s difficult at the moment to predict what a competitive market will be like, communication and customer care will of course become even more important,” says Andrea Chew, Production Print and Post Manager at Southern Water.
At present, the company’s business plan is based on Southern Water’s aim to be easy to buy services from, easy to communicate with and a supplier of products and services at competitive prices.
“We’ve long been aware that our communication has generated questions, which in turn resulted in several calls to customer service. One of the aims of the project was to reduce the number of calls,” explains Andrea Chew.
At the same time, the company sends a lot of different kinds of communication out to its customers. In total there are around eight million mailings every year, and in the past it was common for customers to receive several letters from the company on the same day. The simple explanation was that the systems did not generate all communication to the same customer simultaneously.
“This was of course unfortunate, and something we wanted to avoid. The extra postage also cost us a tremendous amount of money. The most important thing for us was to reduce the number of envelopes we send out.”
In order to improve communication with its customers, in spring 2013 Southern Water implemented a project to improve the legibility of bills and other transaction documents. The project, which was implemented in partnership with PostNord Stralfors, consisted of two stages: firstly, they reviewed all of the information and made sure that everything they wanted to say to their customers was included. Then they organised the information so that it was in the right order and the right place – and that it was easy to assimilate. The overall aim was that Southern Water’s customers should understand the information as quickly as possible.
In order to analyse how different people assimilate information, Southern Water set up focus groups of various ages and different genders.
“For us, it was easiest to use our own employees, and they’re also customers of ours. They were asked to look at lots of different suggested designs using the eye tracking machine, and the results were quite clear,” explains Andrea Chew.
Furthermore, to rectify the problem of one customer receiving several mailings on the same day, they started to combine all data streams in order to link all communication to each unique customer. In purely practical terms, this means that Southern Water prints all of its customer communication digitally in four-colour print and that all messages can be personalised down to the individual level.
The eye tracking analysis enabled Andrea Chew and her colleagues to learn how invoices can be better designed.
“We could see quite clearly that colour and images catch the eye. Charts, coloured boxes and various kinds of markings in the text also made a big difference.”
It also became clear, thanks to the eye tracking analysis, that the texts on the invoices were too long.
“We’ve been writing all of our communication in plain English for some time, so that everyone can understand it. But the texts were also much longer – with the result that fewer customers read it. So we re-worked it,” says Andrea Chew.
A new design was developed based on the analysis, with a new layout, information presented in a different order and new text content. Among other things, there are far fewer words, more images and diagrams, underlining and graphical forms to emphasise the message.
“The eye tracking analysis picked out the most important issues for continued work in the focus groups. We asked supplementary questions about which kinds of charts and illustrations were most effective. For example, we learnt that comparisons with our average consumer work very well. That’s something we’ll be doing a lot more work on.”
The new design came into use at the end of December 2013, and after only six months the project is already being hailed as a success.
“It’s evident that our work has reduced the number of customer contacts. Customer service now has contact with six per cent of the customers to whom we send bills. Before the project started this figure was ten per cent. That makes a big difference for us, as we send out 11,000 invoices every evening,” says Andrea Chew, adding that the average cost of responding to one single call to customer service is £2.48.
Work to reduce the number of mailings to each unique customer also produced results. The new solution has saved the company between seven and eleven per cent in postage. This represents 100,000 pounds a year.
The number of customer contacts rose just after the design changes, which is normal when changes are made to the invoice. For example, some customers called and asked whether it really had come from Southern Water, as the bill didn’t look like the old one.
The company therefore expects the outcome to be even better, with the number of calls to customer service continuing to fall once all customers have got used to the new invoice.
In the longer term, Southern Water faces a major challenge with its thousands of kilometres of water pipelines.
We foresee major costs in future because of climate change. But ideally we’d like to cope with that without too much of an increase in the price we charge our customers,” says Andrea Chew.
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