Warming up customer service for heat networks


How to listen to customers and deliver the heat networks they want is the topic of a discussion with Kirsty Lambert, community heating specialist and director at Switch2 Energy.

“Supplying heat on a local level via heat networks offers an opportunity to deliver exceptional, personalised service and to take time to understand exactly what residents want,” said Lambert. “In this way, we can go above and beyond service levels in traditional centralised energy supply.” Switch2 Energy is a specialised community and district heating provider, and essentially a service provider to the industry from an end-to-end perspective. “We look after full scheme management,” says Lambert, “from procurement of the gas, management of the energy centre, covering the pipework up to the internal property. We also do the billing and debt collection for the property. While we are similar to a utility, we are not part of the regulated market such as electricity or gas is.”

Working with private developers, housing associations and social landlords, Switch2 has a full remit across the entire industry. On some of the schemes, they are not just a service provider, but also an ESCO taking the role of heat supplier with full responsibility of the scheme management.

Smart metering was first implemented across district heating schemes five years ago with the introduction to the G6 smart pay-as-you-go meter. Switch2 was the first to market for smart metering. Lambert says: “We’ve been doing this for a long time – we have been involved in collecting remote meter reads on a daily basis for a long time. We automatically dial in to a data collector which collects all the meter reads for a particular scheme and we download this daily. We then utilise those figures to generate bills for the actual consumption per property.

Switch2’s metering utilises remote meter reading via an open network GPRS communication. Similar to how mobile phones use GPRS, data is transferred from the smart meter installed to Switch2 and visa versa for credit to be loaded to the system and for Switch2 to monitor usage and produce bills and annual statement. Purchases are made via a variety of customer interfaces, including downloadable app and online.

The successful implementation of smart metering by Switch2 is driven by their 35year history in social housing. Lambert says they have ‘grown up’ in an environment where social housing providers have a paternal care toward their residents.

“Because we deal with a large number of vulnerabilities and fuel poverty, our ethos has always been about the customer experience – making sure their needs come first,” she says. “Instead of making our priority looking after the assets and energy centres, we come at it from the customer’s perspective: What are the touch points for that customer, how can we make a difference, how can we make it easy for them to work with us, to contact us etc? We make sure they know they are getting value for money and everything we do is part of a continuous improvement on what that experience looks like.

“We have been early adopters of technology as a result because we want to improve the ways we can communicate with and care for our residents.”

The company is careful to align their customer service ethos with that of the local clients with whom they work – whether that’s Councils and housing associations or private housing providers. Initiatives undertaken to build up the strong customer service base are built on two key pillars, but most especially on close engagement with the resident when the equipment is installed. Explaining how the system works through staff engagement with customers, how they can manage budgets and heating systems etc, is part of the normal operating procedure for the company.

If they inherit a scheme which is already operational, this engagement can be particularly challenging. This would involve engaging with residents and ensuring they understand what they are being charged for, the mechanisms for charging and the services on the back of that.

“We have been involved in schemes that have been operational for a couple of years, and the residents are disgruntled and unhappy with their service and the charges or high level of outages on the energy centres. Once we have finalised our service level agreement with the client, we work with the residents to take them on the journey with us. We assure them of the service we are going to offer going forward and what steps we are going to take to ensure that happens.

“We have inherited sites where the residents are very unhappy and in situations like that, it is our job to hold their hands through the changeover and give them the kind of service you would expect from any other utility such as guaranteed response time, monthly billing etc.” When managing heating for a new development, the company tries to get involved much earlier on in the process so that when residents are moving in, they already know they are buying a property that is part of a community/district heating scheme and they have a good idea of what their experience will be like.

Switch2 provides housing providers with reports which are designed to protect their vulnerable residents. The company reports back on residents who haven’t used heating for a few days or those who haven’t made payments etc so the social landlord can make interventions to protect these vulnerable tenants.

Lambert explains: “We had a client where we noticed that a resident hadn’t topped up their meter for a couple of days so one of the guys on our call centre contacted the resident, albeit unsuccessfully. The tenant was on our vulnerability list and we notified the landlord who sent someone to check on them, only to find that the elderly lady had collapsed a few days earlier. Because our system picked this up, the landlord was able to prevent this situation from becoming more serious.” “Because we have visibility all the time, and can see what is going on in that property on a real-time basis, we are able to provide a useful service for social housing,” she continues.

“Our Incontro smart meter brings together the metering and control into one unit, so our smart metering system is not only a prepayment system for heat, but also has the heating controls within the same makes it simpler for residents to pay for their energy and control and monitor their energy usage.

“We can warn them when their apartment is taking too long to heat up because a window has been left open, or provide budgeting information or give them insight into what it will cost them over a couple of weeks if they turn the temperature up.

“Because we are not seen in the same light as traditional gas or electricity suppliers, and because we are effectively working for the landlord, we are seen as being more of a social benefit than an invasion of privacy or a concern around the level of insight we are able to generate.”

Switch2’s smart metering partnership with Sheffield City Council, has enabled residents to reduce bills by an average of 38% by moving from flat rate billing to new generation pay-as-you-go technology. The importance of customer engagement and education has further been demonstrated in a joint project with Newport City Homes’ Duffryn district heating scheme, where residents have halved their energy consumption by using Switch2’s smart metering technology. Such digital innovation removes the disparity between credit and prepayment systems, which is a major problem for traditional energy suppliers and has required intervention from the energy regulator to introduce price caps.

“With the rapid growth of heat networks, it is vital that the customer is at the heart of the process,” she added. “It is important that we listen actively to residents and respond effectively. Above all, our sector must supply reliable, affordable, low carbon heat and provide a service that is transparent, fair and easy to use.

“It is imperative that developers and heat suppliers adhere to best practice standards from organisations such as CIBSE and The Heat Trust, including setting and delivering on guaranteed performance standards, and consulting with and involving customers at all stages of project delivery. We must give residents control by using smart metering and offer greater choice of billing and payment options, which is particularly important for vulnerable customers.” MI

Switch2 Energy provides an end-to-end service to the district and community heating sector – supplying 70,000 residents and 180 clients across 500 heat networks. The company partners with private developers, local authorities and housing associations to serve the needs of their residents. Switch2’s services include equipment supply, metering, billing and pay-as-you-go, through to maintenance, energy centre management and customer services.