Shifting the dial from ticking the ‘customer consultation’ box to genuine, meaningful, and ongoing customer-centric engagement

Regulated electricity network businesses are required to undergo periodic assessment of their revenue requirements by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) – considered a regulatory reset. The need for ongoing genuine customer consultation is evidenced by the AER’s recent release of its Better Resets Handbook – Towards customer-centric network proposals 2021

As part of the regulatory reset process, energy networks are expected to demonstrate high quality engagement with customers, ensuring plans and investments are in the long-term interests of customers. For recent resets, this has typically involved a multi-step, multi-method approach to engagement over an 18–24 month period prior to the reset, overseen by the AER Consumer Challenge Panel (CCP) and aligned to the their Consumer Engagement Guideline.

For a regulatory reset engagement programs to be successful high-quality engagement is now a given – the next step is to shift to genuine customer-centric engagement all the time.

It’s important that community engagement activities are appropriate to the audience. Leveraging a co-design approach ensures that any strategy duly represents customers and enables their voices to be heard, and that the development of any regulatory proposals demonstrate genuine and continuous stakeholder and customer engagement.

Networks are grappling with increasingly complex and evolving issues that require them to consider not only the physical engineering, asset, and network conditions but also environmental, societal and governance (ESG) factors. Concurrently, consumer expectations and their influence on an organisation’s strategic direction has skyrocketed.

These factors demand a more sophisticated approach to consumer engagement that delivers an ‘always on’ approach, with a continuous loop of engaging, listening, taking action and communicating outcomes.

We expect to see networks go beyond compliance, moving away from just-in-time engagement towards comprehensive approaches that retain and maintain community engagement throughout regulatory periods. This approach builds community understanding of the Australian energy system and contributes to establishing a platform for attaining the social licence necessary for networks as they adopt more rapid transitions towards decarbonisation, increased network resilience and new technologies.

How do you know it’s genuine and meaningful?

Here are some tips based on our experience supporting networks around Australia to engage with their customers and stakeholders:

  1. Consider all customers – ensure representation across all customer cohorts and tailor engagement approaches for inclusion, including for culturally and linguistically diverse communities and people who are experiencing vulnerability – ensuring no one is left behind.
  2. Look ahead – as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the global trends are becoming more and more relevant to the local context. Maintaining an understanding of the broader geopolitical and technological trends will ensure customer priorities are protected.
  3. Two-way dialogue – two-way communication is essential to get to the heart of what customers think and feel. It’s important that methods of customer engagement enable genuine dialogue with customers.
  4. Listen and act – networks must ensure they are committed to genuinely considering changing business practices based on customer views; consider – Are your customers presented with real choices that can materially change the services you deliver or how you deliver them?
  5. Be pragmatic and creative – customer engagement techniques are constantly evolving, and it can pay dividends to ensure your approaches are as creative and varied as your customer base. Equally, effective engagement techniques need not be new and innovative if they are proven and mutually beneficial.
  6. Make it relevant – engagement should take place through multiple channels and at critical ‘moments that matter’ touchpoints in the customer journey, as well as aligning to the business’s regulatory timeframes. Not only does this make it easier for the customer; it delivers richer insights.
  7. Ensure it’s continuous – customer engagement shouldn’t be approached as a one-off tick box activity. To be meaningful, it needs to be ongoing.
  8. Measure it – a successful engagement program delivers measurable findings aligned to your strategic customer metrics (e.g. customer satisfaction) and your desired outcomes (e.g. developing a proposal supported by customers).

These guiding principles ensure that customer and stakeholder engagement is truly genuine, and the voice of the customer is embedded in the program. However, customer engagement is continually evolving and is not a check-box solution. Businesses must stay ahead of customer engagement and abreast of better practice engagement to deliver a program that is truly customer-centric and enables optimal endorsement by the regulator.

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