The barrier to understanding energy bills is a lack of clear communication.

Way back in March 2009, energy regulator Ofgem told energy companies to make monthly direct debit demands clearer. By 2010, the objective was to make the 200 million bills sent by energy companies each year simpler.

In October 2012, Ofgem unveiled proposals that included banning complex multi-tier tariffs, new personalised information to help consumers find their best deal, and ensuring customers default to the cheapest option at the end of fixed-term contract.

Now we’re in 2013 and the battle over clearer energy prices is in full swing. In short, energy companies are under a lot of pressure to remove the complexity behind tariffs and start making things as simple as possible for their customers. A huge part of this is creating clear, easy to understand customer communication.

Customer feedback on a simple energy bill. Ask a stupid question…

It was with this in mind that we decided to take a recent (and apparently simple) energy bill to a group of people we were certain would understand it.

We approached:

A member of MENSA and Real Tennis Champion

A professor from Oxford University

A Dragons’ Den participant with a double First from Oxford

We asked a simple question: “Can you explain this energy bill?”

These bills should be designed to make the often complex task of understanding energy statements simpler, clearer and more understandable for customers. Helping them make the right choices. The video above illustrates how difficult an energy bill can be to understand – even for those who are significantly above average in intelligence.

From our understanding, this bill has been “Plain English” certified, uses a variety of graphical and wayfinding elements to explain the various aspects and even conforms (more or less) to Ofgem’s suggested layout for clearer energy bills.

This particular provider also offers a “Your bills explained” pdf from their website. The first question might be why a simple bill (with Jargon Buster already included) needs an 11 page help guide to go along with it. Surely this suggests there’s scope to make the bill clearer?

Complex customer communication requires a different approach

Improving a statement or a bill like this needs a thoughtful hierarchy of information, combined with clear English (not always plain), reinforced with graphical elements to support the user’s eye tracking. There’s then scope to use behavioural psychology tactics to ensure you get the right response. Most of the time, that’ll do.

However, when it comes to complex information like this, you need to take a few steps back as well as delving a lot deeper.

What would we suggest?

We’ve sat down with our customer communication specialists and put together 3 simple suggestions for making bills easier to understand. It’s not exhaustive, but it would be a dramatic step forward for very little effort.

1. Context and framework

Give someone complex information without a framework or any context and you might as well have handed them an alien language. Context is everything, and this bill simply doesn’t express itself clearly enough. For a customer, who’ll spend just a few seconds reading it before picking up the phone with questions, the lack of context means the blizzard of numbers don’t mean much. Building greater context around the numbers, the justifications and the end result would go a long way towards making it more immediately understandable.

2. Layout and journey

The current layout appears to conform to best practice, but causes a whole host of issues with eye tracking and confusion on where information is placed. Look back to the video and you’ll see each person thumbing back and forth, trying to marry up disparate bits of information. This shows that the layout is flawed, and the journey forces the user to leapfrog to understand it. It’s also an indication that the framework wouldn’t survive user testing.

3. Simplifying the complex

Until energy companies comply with the new Ofgem guidelines for simpler tariffs, the complexity of an energy bill will be impregnable to most. Charts, graphs and friendly icons mean nothing if they’re not expressed in a way that’s digestible to a customer. The bill we tested seems like an internally-focused document with an overlay of customer-friendly afterthought. Instead, we’d suggest starting from the beginning and designing the information in a format the customer will find useful and accessible.

Clear customer communication is vital

Energy bills are a classic example of where operationally-focused material has a knock-on effect to the customer. We see it in all sorts of industries – where creating clear customer communication and content get’s sidelined. The video above is a simple example of exactly what your customers do every time they receive something they don’t understand. And the customer experience is made all the poorer for it.

1 thought on “Understanding energy bills – the voice of the customer”

  1. Really interesting post! Energy bills are confusing, much of it is actually easier to understand than we think, but I believe we expect it to be hard and don’t wish to spend our time figuring them out, a sentiment expressed by one of your participants in the video. It’s frustrating that we can’t just look at a bill and know:

    1) how much do I owe,
    2) how much have I used – in real terms that make sense to a lay person and
    3) what this really means – i.e. where do I sit in context of consumption, am I a high user or low user? etc

    There will undoubtedly be other information that Ofgem will madate companies to include.

    It’s a utility we pay for and we don’t want to engage hugely or spend vast amounts of time figuring out the detail and it’s frustrating that bills force us to do this. I know that this has certainly been true for me. Who really has any idea what a Kw Hour is, unless you’re an engineer? Does it mean that this unit of energy lasts an hour? Is it an hour of TV or an hour of oven baking? It’s a meaningless measurement to those that aren’t familiar with it and I think it confuses people, it certainly confused me.

    I agree energy companies could make their bills much easier to understand. It’s something that I know the sector is working on. However, the challenge will be providing the customer with clear and simple information and balancing the right amount of information without confusing customers or not providing them with the enough to allow them to be informed about thier accounts and about the choices they make regarding their energy supply going forward.

    Your observations are very useful as in the video. I wonder how the different companies would compare….

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