Thursday, May 15, 2008

The British Gas, the utility industry, customer service and consultants

I've been really struggling to get time to blog this week, which is a pity when there has been so much to comment on.

The blog has looked at problems in the utility industry before (see posts like: "Are utility companies really the worst call centres?") , so I was most interested to read in the Times on Monday. There one of the lead business articles was that "British Gas fights Accenture over billing". British Gas has been notorious in the UK for it's customer service issues, (see for example: 'British Gas's 29th appearance on BBC Watchdog, October 2006'), so it is interesting to see that they regard Accenture as responsible.

The Times explains further that:

"Centrica [the parent company of British Gas] hired Accenture to provide the new billing system seven years ago.

It was to bring together the records of British Gas's 12.5million gas and electricity customers on to one platform capable of handling 250,000 meter readings and 200,000 bills a day.

The £317million fee would come from the £397million of savings that British Gas expected to obtain from the project.

Centrica claims that, after a number of glitches, in March 2006 Accenture guaranteed a software upgrade that would work. Centrica argues that, instead, the system continued to struggle and generated a high level of “exceptions” - billing issues that required manual intervention.

Centrica also claims that Accenture failed to provide adequate computer hardware and did not integrate the system properly. The energy supplier formally notified Accenture that it was in breach of contract in February 2007.

A British Gas spokesman said: “An independent analysis of the billing system has concluded that Accenture was responsible for fundamental errors in the design and implementation of the system. British Gas has been left with no option but to pursue legal redress against Accenture.”

In the past year, since British Gas fixed the system itself, complaints to Energywatch about the supplier have fallen 85 per cent, the spokesman said."

I should make clear that Accenture deny the allegations strongly, saying in the Times:

"Accenture vowed yesterday to fight its corner, stating: “We are confident, based on the facts of the situation, that this claim is baseless and without merit. Centrica is only trying to shift the blame for a situation it created.” "

It's obviously impossible for outsiders to know where the blame sits, but I think a few general conclusions can be drawn.

The first is that agents will not deliver good customer service without the right information. This may seem obvious, but the technical challenge of delivering information to the agent, and doing so in a usable form, should not be underestimated.This isn't just a user interface design (though that is critical) but it's also a data integration project and probably a process re-engineering project.

The second is that consultants have to be used with caution, and they in turn have to be prepared to have some tough conversations with the customer about what can realistically be delivered. I've covered this in more depth in the post, "Does lack of management experience cause most contact centre problems? The perspecitve of the "Puritan Gift"", but I think the criticism of management 'generalists' is usually a valid one. There is a clear role for the traditional definition of consultant, an individual hired at senior level to provide deep subject matter expertise in area such as IT or finance where managers may lack deep knowledge. I'm much more ambivalent about the idea of bringing in consultants to run things as running things (even complex change programs) should be a competence of the company's existing management. Where Accenture and British Gas sit in all of this is obviously for the lawyers to decide.

The final conclusion is that the contact centre really does matter. How British Gas is perceived by customers and the market will be partly determined by this case and partly by what customers now experience when they deal with the company.

2 comments:

Simon Sharwood said...

Here's a happier story about utility service: http://itradio.com.au/callcentres/?p=18
Long story short, they have completely reworked all processes, from field to contact centre, to cope with higher call load. Refreshingly strategic thinking.

Alex said...

Simon,
Thank you very much for the comment, I've had a quick look at: http://itradio.com.au/callcentres/?p=18 and it looks a great site.

Many thanks,
Alex