It’s been a challenging period for energy retailers, with price rises, regulatory pressures and increased market scrutiny. According to ActewAGL’s General Manager Retail, Ayesha Razzaq, restoring confidence in our retailers comes back to the simple act of remembering the core function of our businesses – are we in the business of generating bills and complying with regulator reports, or are we here to meet our customers’ needs when it comes to the essential service we provide them?
It might seem obvious to say that energy retailers need to turn all of their focus and attention to meeting the needs of their customers. But in a highly regulated environment, with many compliance obligations that need to be met, it’s actually pretty easy for retailers to lose sight of what their ultimate end goal should be.
This is why it’s so important for retailers to have champions in their executive and leadership teams that remind the entire team of where their focus needs to be – and this is exactly the role that Ms Razzaq plays day in day out.
According to Ms Razzaq, the formula for meeting customers’ needs isn’t tricky – it simply comes back to delivering what they want in an authentic and genuine way, and being there for them.
Looking beyond this basic principle, Ms Razzaq is leading a drive within ActewAGL to simplify, improve and enhance every interaction their customers have with their call centre staff, all of whom are based in Canberra in the same building as the business’s executive team.
“Today, we have new data and new ways of working, yet we’re still following the same processes in our customer interactions,” said Ms Razzaq.
“We’re a hundred-year-old business and I’m the first to admit we can do things better.
“We need to move from focusing on the process to focusing on the customer outcome. How can we make it easier for them to deal with us? How can we improve energy affordability, not just in the prices we charge, but in customer education around energy efficiency?”
The advantage that energy retailers have when asking these questions is the fact that they are all users of the product too.
According to Ms Razzaq, this makes it easy to identify what the customer is looking for – a reasonable price, simplicity, transparency, and reliability.
“Sometimes we overcomplicate things, but I think if we can stay focused on those core goals, that’s probably where the future retailers will win,” said Ms Razzaq.
For Ms Razzaq, it’s also important to foster an environment where her staff feel empowered when it comes to service delivery.
“Service delivery is such a natural instinct, but sometimes in organisations we put a lot of bureaucracies and processes in place that stops that service culture, which is really innate, and it’s really human.”
To counteract this, Ms Razzaq encourages her staff to see the customer, and not the process, in order to deliver the best solution.
One of the other key elements for ActewAGL when it comes to developing customer trust is being an active part of the community, and really embedding the business as a critical part of the Canberra landscape.
“It’s not just words or money, it’s actions. We’ve got an employee volunteer program where our staff are out in the community, rolling up their sleeves and showing support. I believe some customers do want a sense of belonging, and a sense of community.
“Ultimately, it comes down to getting your employees focused on a really unified sense of purpose, which then manifests itself to a great customer experience.”
These steps are part of the overall drive towards customer centricity which is such a critical focus for Ms Razzaq and the business as a whole.
“The thing with customer centricity is that everyone talks a good story, but not everyone actually does it. Independent research undertaken by CSBA in December 2018 highlights that ActewAGL has the best customer service compared to any other energy retailer in ACT, based on 30 competency areas.
“These results just back-up what we already know, customers want highly skilled, localised customer support.
“We’re very serious about continual improvement to service and customer experience, it’s such a powerful factor for energy retailers, in particular with social media and online reviews.”
Turning threats into opportunities
According to Ms Razzaq, it’s this sentiment of putting the customer first that will allow energy retailers to look at threats and turn them into opportunities.
For instance, when looking at the challenge of customers – particularly large energy users – banding together and approaching energy producers directly and cutting out the retail middleman, Ms Razzaq takes the pragmatic response of realising that if this is a solution that customers do want, rather than fighting this desire, ActewAGL should look at how they can play a part in facilitating that solution.
“It might be the whole value chain that we see retail businesses offering now, but users and providers might need someone to do their billing for them, for example,” said Ms Razzaq.
“If we can’t provide the whole tower, we’re happy to look at which of the
building blocks we can help with.”
Based on Ms Razzaq’s experience with customers in this situation, she realises that often a customer will come back to a traditional retailer for at least some assistance in the process of procuring energy.
“When confronted with some of the challenges energy retailing provides at a regulatory level, I’ve seen many businesses come back to traditional retailers. They might not take every service we offer, but they will take some services, and that is the service we can still provide.”
Of course this is just one small type of threat the retail industry needs to consider on a daily basis. In any business today, there are constant threats to disruption, and businesses need to constantly think about what – or who – the next potential disruptor could be.
“I think all of us in retail need to carry a healthy sense of paranoia,” said Ms Razzaq. “I’m always thinking about how can I be disrupted; and I always have a few people in my team, often some of the young bright ones who come at the industry with fresh eyes, thinking about how a competitor would disrupt someone like ActewAGL, and about who can come between us and our customers.”
Talking about the “uberisation” of energy, and the idea of tech giants entering the retail marketplace, Ms Razzaq acknowledges that these businesses are a threat – but how big of a threat they will be will come down to how existing retailers respond to them.
“You’re not going to stop these companies, and they have deep pockets,” said Ms Razzaq. “These companies are all very skilled when it comes to data, so for me, the question is how does this present an opportunity for the greater integrity of the industry, and for the greater good, where we should compete, or where we should collaborate with the likes of Google and Apple?’”
Ultimately, Ms Razzaq believes it doesn’t have to be an “us and them” situation – and that there is a real opportunity to take a collaborative view on this.
“They’re great tech companies, but we understand the customer, we understand the business, we understand the regulatory changes,” said Ms Razzaq.
“I would see Google and Apple as being part of an ecosystem of partners we’d like to work with to help improve the services we offer to our customers.
“These opportunities to collaborate are exciting because there’s the potential here for synergies where one plus one equals three. And ultimately, if you can get a better outcome for the customer and be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, why wouldn’t you?”
Of course, when operating in an environment of disruption and change, Ms Razzaq acknowledges that critical to the success of the business is leadership that is prepared to be bold and courageous.
“One of my favourite sayings is a turtle only moves forward by sticking its neck out. We need to take a few more risks and stop playing it safe,” said Ms Razzaq.
“We also need to create that culture where you encourage and empower your staff to also stick their necks out, while knowing that the business has their backs.”
And this need to be bold and courageous doesn’t just apply to ActewAGL – it’s something the entire industry needs to be prepared to do.
“As the energy industry is going through these unprecedented changes, and they are once-in-a-generation, we need to recognise that we can’t just do things incrementally better.
“As Henry Ford said, we can’t just provide our customers with faster horses, we need to think differently.
“Our Board recognises that, they know that we need to adapt to stay relevant. Resisting change won’t get us anywhere.
“The businesses who are going to survive in the future are not necessarily those that are the strongest, it’s the ones who are going to be adaptable to change and can think from a very different perspective.”
Managing price impacts
Of course along with managing change and disruption, energy retailers also need to manage regulation and compliance requirements, and the latest regulation the Federal Government is looking to introduce relates to the prices retailers can charge their customers.
The latest round of regulation that the Federal Government is looking to impose on retailers relates to default energy prices. And while this doesn’t affect ActewAGL (in the ACT, retailers are subject to state-based regulation with a price determination that takes them through to 2020), Ms Razzaq acknowledges that there is more retailers can do when it comes to energy prices.
“I believe it should be industry-led, because there’s a lot of risk associated with default prices – if we set prices too high on a safety net, it’s not good for the customer; and if we set them too low, it’s going to potentially drive down competition, and so you’ll find a lot of the smaller retailers who are innovative and in that more exciting space won’t be able to comply. If prices are too low, it might also discourage investment into generation, which is critical.”
Ultimately, Ms Razzaq believes price is just one of the issues we need to tackle when it comes to regaining customer trust.
“Price is one thing, but it isn’t a silver bullet,” said Ms Razzaq. “If we can shift the conversation from price to energy affordability and efficiency, that would be a good thing.”
This ties into a broader passion for Ms Razzaq, which is protecting vulnerable customers from price rises they cannot absorb.
“With more new technologies entering the market, I think there’s a responsibility on retailers to take our vulnerable customers –
those who can’t afford the solar panels, the batteries, the smart meters – along on the journey, and look at how we can assist them to have equal access to ensure they don’t get left behind.
“This is really important for me, because it’s the vulnerable people who I feel need that safety net and that protection. They don’t have the know-how to churn or switch. So if we can protect that segment, that’s a really valuable contribution we can make.”
There’s no shortage of challenges to keep Ms Razzaq and her team busy; and in the short to medium term, the key areas that they will continue to focus on will be delivering what the customer needs and wants, and improving the interactions the business has with its customers.
For Ms Razzaq, it’s an exciting time to be involved in energy retailing, largely due to the fact that she’s dealing with a product that touches every part of our society.
“Everyone uses it every day, and so my work sees me involved with a great many communities where I can influence change and perception about what the future will bring,” said Ms Razzaq.
Ultimately, for Ms Razzaq, the way she and her team are confronting the current challenges the retail industry face comes back to their focus on customer service and delivery.
“And if you are truly customer-centric you can grow in any market condition, whether it’s good times or turbulent times.”