Everyone Deserves A Say When It Comes To Utilities: MRS Utilities Conference Summary

November 1, 2018

We recently attended the Market Research Society Utilities Research conference, where our Head of Utilities Dawn Mulvey was invited to chair the event. This honour was awarded thanks to her amazing presentation last year with Electricity North West Ltd on the award-winning Power Saver Challenge project, and in recognition of her team’s strong relationship with the sector. We were also proud to have Impact Utilities’ Associate Director Nicole McNab take the stage, presenting alongside project partners EA Technology in an engaging session on Managing EV Demand on Network Capacity. 

The day consisted of a range of engaging presentations, focusing on a broad set of challenges, from how to build engagement and advocacy within communities, to capturing the views of hard to reach customers. It was well attended, with delegates from Distribution Network Operators (DNOs), Gas Distribution Network Operators (GDNs), water suppliers, energy suppliers and market research specialists. The overarching question of the day was how can the sector better meet customer needs, and how can the industry learn from stakeholders in a creative and stimulating way? Through a variety of inspiring presentations and panels, it was evident that:


•    Changing how businesses understand customer preferences and perceptions holds great importance

•    Evaluating the process and value of developing strategic framework for effective customer engagement is evolving

Associate Director Nicole McNab shared insights from the consumer engagement piece from the ground-breaking Electric Nation project.


Nicole and Nick Storer, Principal Consultant at EA Technology, gave a highly engaging and confident presentation on how electric vehicle ownership will impact low voltage networks, and how our research can be used to ensure the industry is future-ready.

The presentation demonstrated how the growth of electric vehicles have exploded in the past five years in the UK, with the Government also providing their backing through ensuring all new homes built will have a plug-in point. 1 in 12 cars sold in August in the UK were pure electric or hybrid and a plug-in car was sold every 9 minutes in the UK in the first half of 2018 – interesting considering that nobody raised their hand to owning an electric vehicle at the beginning of Nicole’s presentation.

It was evident from this talk that demand is increasing, however if the nation all plugged in their vehicles at the same time, the infrastructure is likely to become strained at peak times. Upgrading the network would solve this problem, however customers would end up paying for it via billing. The peak load creates a challenge as it creates faults and problems in networks, yet if the charging times were shifted to later in the evening and overnight, the network capacity is more manageable.  

EV drivers are trialling a number of smart charging solutions and algorithms, informing the industry of which flexible charging solution is most acceptable to the public. To find out about the early results, click here.


Identifying vulnerable customers


Throughout the day, there was a strong focus on vulnerable customers and the myths that surround this category. According to Ofgem, there are 6 million customers registered as being vulnerable.

Although age can be a factor; economic, social and physical wellbeing also contribute to categorising individuals as vulnerable. Categorising customers can be challenging, as it is such a dynamic and transient process. In fact, the energy sector is trying to move away from traditional categories such as age and disability in order to adopt new techniques to allow people to self-identify. However, EnergyUK claimed that often people don’t want to be classed as vulnerable or put on a register, which makes them a harder audience to reach and get the assistance that they need.


Putting vulnerable customers first


The panel between Ecorys, NUS, Energy UK, uSwitch UK and Renewable UK, led to a discussion about what needs to be done to engage, educate and assist vulnerable customers. How can we create an environment where customers feel comfortable enough to give us meaningful answers? It is essential to reach out to - and engage with - vulnerable customers, using a collaborative approach, which brings many groups together. 



Highlights form other presenters


According to Justin Bear from Plymouth Energy Community, “gleaning insights about customer journeys and identifying the most effective engagement mechanisms” is the foundation to understanding customer behaviours and attitudes. 

•    Plymouth City Council’s domestic energy scheme proved that the second most successful form of communication, behind traditional direct mail, was word of mouth. However, even this method had its drawbacks as it only worked if customers were satisfied with their installation. 

•    Northumbrian Water talked us through their initiative ‘Innovation Festival’ - a 5-day immersive process designed to answer multiple business questions, which featured experts, innovators and customers. This method of collaboration and participation has been found to give a voice to all parties, as respondents are encouraged to speak out about their feelings and opinions in multiple ways. “Through conversation and debate, you have a transcript happening before your eyes."

•    SSE took a stressful moment in peoples’ – moving house - and tried to make sure that energy switching was not part of customers’ frustrations. By focusing on one life event, the research was able to hone in on the communication required to make interacting with an energy supplier more seamless.  

•    Bristol Water developed an online community ‘to garner insights into campaign effectiveness and understand behaviour and usage change.’ This meant the community voice impacted strategic decision making across stakeholder teams. We can’t assume people’s values are the same, so it is essential to ensure all views are captured.

•    A simple method recommended by Severn Trent is to test questionnaires on 10-year-olds, and if they understand it, anyone can!


Contact us for further information

At Impact Utilities we talk to customers in their own language - whether that is to discuss their energy bills, energy efficiency or other pertinent matter - which we then relay back to you in the form of actionable insights. If you would like to arrange a call or a meeting at your office to discuss how we can help you, please contact Dawn Mulvey, Head of Utilities on dawn.mulvey@impactmr.com or 01932 226 793.


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