Utilities, the General Election and renationalisation; it all got a bit emotional didn’t it? Let’s keep it going!

18th December 2019 11:44

By Alex McCluckieAssociate Director. Email Alex

Well well, what a week it’s been. Following last Thursday’s events, the threat of renationalisation looming large over the utilities sector is no more and yet in the aftermath of the night’s results I couldn’t help but dwell somewhat on some of the rhetoric emanating from the Red side of the political spectrum and particularly, the emotive language I had been hearing in the run up to the General Election. Why was emotion at the forefront of my mind? It was nothing to do with the actual result itself, more the ramifications for the sector and how companies should be operating now that a degree of (relative) stability has descended. Let me explain…

Regardless of your view on the topic of renationalisation, the very fact that it was being mooted in the first place may have been suggestive that there are sections of consumers that feel as though the sector’s performance was leaving a little to be desired. Now with the regulatory boffins at Ofwat having recently crunched the numbers and having published their Final Determinations (…including a £51bn spending package), I am writing this on the assumption that adequate steps will be being put in place from a service perspective to ensure that current and future customers will be in receipt of a service that absolutely does what it should both now and for years to come.

With an eye to the future however and of course with the advent of C-MeX, outside of the traditionally held notions of ‘core service’ there is a growing place for a conversation around how water companies can look to enhance the relationships they hold with their consumers.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly invested in helping my clients recognise, appreciate and measure how their own consumers’ emotions can help them boost their own brand loyalty and consumer experience and when it comes to water companies, one of the first things that I find is that reach is often a problem.

For example, many of the water companies that work with me can provide numerous examples of great emotionally engaging activities that they are carrying out and yet when we ask their consumers whether they are aware that this type of activity was going on, there is a familiar greeting of tumbleweed that descends across the discussion!

On the one hand this is a conversation to be had in the boardroom so that marketing budgets can be adequately allocated that allow companies to shout about what they are up to. However, our experience suggests that the issue goes deeper than this. Considering the reality that engaging emotionally with your customers is one of the best ways to become familiar, recalled and valued when they are asked about you and with such a significant amount of any customer interaction being evaluated on an emotional basis, it is of vital importance that organisations make sure they are engaging with customers in an emotionally positive way – and this needs to be filtered down and bought in to by every customer touchpoint and beyond.

Contact is not necessarily king!

Now, this sounds simple enough. Connect positively and ipso facto, you’ll see your KPIs skyrocket! Before we get carried away with this overly simplistic revelation, let’s just think about a few different areas in which emotional connections can be formed…

Firstly, there is the obvious; when a customer interacts with their supplier. Now in this instance, how this interaction goes and how it is handled by the customer service representative – good or bad – will have an emotional impact and leave an emotional signature on the customer long after the interaction is over. Considering that customers will rarely get in touch with their water company about something positive, it is safe to assume that they may already be in a relatively delicate emotional state. As such, ensuring that staff are adequately skilled in empathetic communication is one obvious way to build that positive emotional connection.

Emotional engagement however goes beyond simply engaging as and when customers get in touch with an issue. There is a host of ways that brands engage with their customers even when that is not their primary and intended objective. A recent interview conducted with a customer of a WaSC illustrated this well. During the course of the discussion, it was clear that the need to feel safe was a key emotional need for this particular participant and it was also one that was, in his view, being fulfilled by his supplier very well.

Now, how was this being achieved? Was it being accomplished through marketing activities that actively communicated this as a message? Maybe he had got in touch and had been told by a customer service representative about all the things his supplier was doing in the name of safety? Actually, it was completely passive. Instead, he had seen his supplier’s team out, working late one wet and cold evening to fix a minor leak in a road that was nothing to do with him, directly.

This is just one example, there are many more that I could list, but the real question is, can these little instances play a significant role in emotional engagement and consumer experience? The answer is yes, they absolutely can and why? Because perception is leaky!

I have written in the past about the enduring impact of emotional experiences, no matter how slight (see here). Interestingly, research[1] shows that minor emotional states can actually linger in peoples’ minds much longer than more intense episodes due to innate psychological processes that humans are evolutionarily hardwired with which serve to diminish them. As a result, this unconscious process means that intense states may subside much quicker than their milder counterparts suggesting that little acts that cause key emotional desires to be triggered can remain in consumers’ psyches far after the event itself.

With the water sector becoming increasingly competitive (think C-MeX), efforts to emotionally engage are more important than they have ever been and providing taps that flow and toilets that do the right thing is no longer enough.

In my view, it is clear that many companies in the water sector could do more to understand how they could emotionally engage – either directly or indirectly with their consumers. If direct, which elements of your interactions make your customers feel something, whether that be positive or negative and to what extent? If indirectly, what activities would pack the biggest emotional clout amongst the consumer base? Those organisations that proactively seek to understand such issues and seek to improve how they can emotionally engage with their customers will be the ones that gain a competitive advantage.

If you would like to hear more about emotional engagement and emotional measurement, then please do feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to talk.


[1] Gilbert, D. et al., ( 2004 ).  The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad. Psychological Science 15  ( 1 ), 14-19.

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