June 5, 2023 5:59 pm

help fix the relationship between energy suppliers and their customers.Zoa

Nobody would suggest that culture was the key factor in the energy crisis that engulfed the U.K.’s consumers last winter. A sudden surge in wholesale prices in the wake of the world economy returning to full capacity after the restrictions imposed by the pandemic combined with the hostilities in Ukraine and the resulting effects on supply was largely to blame. And this was exacerbated in the U.K. by a regulatory regime that was so keen on competition that many customers were obtaining their energy from new entrants that were ill-equipped to handle this sudden change in the market. But setting up the right culture just might play a role in rehabilitating the energy sector in the eyes of the public.

This at least is the view of Tom Fraine, who was chief people officer at one of those upstarts, Bulb, which has gone into administration. He is now chief operating officer for Zoa, which is using the technology that was at heart of Bulb’s offering to play a wider role in the energy market. As he said in a recent interview, the technology has the potential to help remove the dependence on hydrocarbons by making the transition to alternative energy easier. But the real benefit is that “it can help to fix the slightly broken relationship between consumers and energy suppliers.”

At its heart is an automatic email response tool that responds to about a third of emails from consumers. Given general dissatisfaction with chatbots and other aspects of AI, this does not sound too promising. But Fraine insists that dealing with a significant proportion of communications in this way improves customer satisfaction through freeing up people to provide the personal response that is required by the other two-thirds. “A lot of contacts are really basic,” he adds, justifying the automatic response to them.

Where the culture comes in is in the passion that his team — currently it number about 75, but he expects to recruit another 30 or so in the coming months — has for the task. “We hired people who wanted to make an impact on the climate crisis. We saw them as missionary rather than mercenary,” he said of the recruits who largely joined from the collapsed Bulb. He added that the passion of these people helped the defunct company’s 1.5 million customers through the transfer to another supplier.

Whether or not Zoa will succeed remains to be seen, of course. But Fraine believes that the power of the technology lies in the fact that it was “incubated within an energy company.” He explained: “We really understand the problems. Our obsession was helping solve them.”

As an indication of the lack of a real relationship between the energy companies and the public, Fraine suggests that the companies are dissuaded from communicating with their customers because research suggests this encourages the customers to think of switching suppliers. Dealing with this might require more than a smarter call center, but Zoa is not the only organization facing this challenge.

According to a report published earlier this month by Twilio, a customer engagement platform that helps brand provide “personalised experiences” for customers, there is a “stark disconnect” between companies and consumers over the use of AI here. According to the report, 92% of global businesses are now using AI-driven personalisation to drive business growth, with 81% of them also believing that recent AI technology has the potential to impact customer experiences in a positive way. However, only 36% of European consumers are comfortable with companies using AI to personalize their experiences, and fewer than half trust brands to keep their personal data secure and use it responsibly. AI-driven personalization is only as good as its underlying dataset, says Twilio, and, without robust data, customer experiences will likely miss the mark for consumers.

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I am a U.K.-based journalist with a longstanding interest in management. In a career dating back to the days before newsroom computers I have covered everything from popular music to local politics. I was for many years an editor and writer at the “Independent” and “Independent on Sunday” and have written three books, the most recent of which is “What you need to know about business.”

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