Q&A With Darren Bentham, Chief Customer Officer, Southern Water

Design is, without a doubt, the sexiest of the six customer experience (CX) disciplines. So when we talk about CX design at Forrester, our favorite example comes from a really sexy industry: water utilities.

That’s right — water utilities. And one in particular: Southern Water, located in the southeast of the UK.

We like the Southern Water example because it shows that CX design is not about what shade of blue your logo should be, and it’s not just for people who wear black turtlenecks. No, CX design is about a repeatable problem-solving process that incorporates the needs of customers, employees, and other business stakeholders.

And that’s why we invited Darren Bentham, chief customer officer at Southern Water, to speak at our SOLD OUT Forum For Customer Experience Professionals EMEA in London on November 19th and 20th. Darren has taken on one of the biggest, toughest CX challenges we know of: installing thousands of water meters for customers who have never had them before, didn’t ask for them, and in many cases don’t want them. And yet, by applying CX design principles, he’s making this a positive experience for all parties involved.

In the run-up to the event, Darren took the time to respond to a series of questions about what he’s been doing to improve customer experience and what advice he’d give to others in his shoes. His answers appear below.

I hope you enjoy his insights, and I look forward to seeing many of you in London on November 19th and 20th!

Q. When did your company first begin focusing on customer experience? Why?

A. We began in April 2010 to focus on customer experience, which was a year before installation of the first meter in our metering program. For us, the customer journey is the essential thread that binds the entire fabric of our five-year metering program together.

Meters are vital to help preserve water resources because their installation generally results in customers cutting their water use by 10% to 18%. But imposing them on 500,000 customers — many of whom could face higher bills — had the potential to be a disaster for Southern Water. It was therefore vital that we engaged all our customers throughout the whole journey.

Q. What were the first steps your firm took to improve customer experience? Why did you choose to start that way?

A. Research, research and research . . .  In 2010, we became the first company in the UK to introduce a large-scale universal metering program. The eyes of the water industry were on us. We had one opportunity to ensure that we implemented the correct strategy in getting our customers on board. As a result of research, that strategy evolved not from what we thought our customers wanted, but from what they told us they wanted.

We needed to understand what our customers wanted, what their concerns were, and what fears they had before we could develop our metering day-to-day program.

Q. What if anything is different about what you're doing now to improve customer experience versus what you did when you were starting out?

A. We identified within the universal metering program that understanding what our customers wanted was not enough; we had to genuinely engage them in the journey. Based on this knowledge we produced an engagement wheel, which we use to manage the process of customer engagement. Its five steps capture our view that undertaking market research, or otherwise seeking customer and stakeholder views, isn’t enough.  True engagement requires that we listen and give feedback on the views that are expressed to us so that we only take action on the basis of genuine understanding.

Within universal metering, our customer journey has been the heart of the program. Working with our customers, we were able to produce a journey that our customers found acceptable.

Q. If you had it to do over again, what would you do the same? Differently? Why?

A. [Working] with customers who had been through the metering program as advocates . . . closely . . . to help promote the program and answer customers’ fears and concerns [throughout] their own experiences — we’d use external support to get it right.

Q. What advice would you give to a company trying to plan its own path to CX maturity?

A. Research, research, and more research. Talk to your customers and stakeholders, consult with other companies that have implemented great customer engagement programs, and learn from their experience before you start.  Respond to what your customers tell you!