Rebuilding customer trust in a post-pandemic world: Lessons learnt from the energy crisis

Florence Douglas - Associate Director

In a bid to claw its way back from Covid, the UK has walked straight into an energy crisis. Fuel shortages have served to inflate fuel prices, which have impacted supply chains and left supermarket shelves empty. Customers no longer trust businesses to deliver the goods and services they’ve been promised, and where price was once a key lever that influenced customer choice, what matters now is your ability to fulfil your promises.

Let’s take energy companies as an example. Many have gone bust, meaning their customers have had to switch to more expensive suppliers. This is far removed from a market opened up for competition by the Gas Act back in 1986, which encouraged energy suppliers to position their brands around financial benefit – the hope being that customers would have the ability and appetite to switch between providers whenever they liked.

That said, we know the reality was a little different, having worked with energy providers and switching services like GoCompare. Only a minority of customers actually made the switch on a regular basis. Of the 2,000 plus that we surveyed in 2019, only 28% [1] told us they’d switched energy providers in the past two years. And now, as the market stands in 2021, whatever choice customers did have is massively diminished. So much so that Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert advises, “come off fixed term contracts and sit tight”.

Responding to changing customer attitudes

Considering that switching providers could make customers worse off than before, inertia could become even more entrenched. Only 35% [2] of those we surveyed in October of this year said they would be likely to change suppliers in the next 12 months. What’s more, levels of switching may not improve even after the energy crisis comes to an end, with only 38% [3] of respondents telling us they intended to switch once the crisis had finished.  

Such huge disruption to both supply and price has had a significant impact on customer attitudes to the type of service provider they would trust, especially in terms of stability and size. Attitudes have dramatically changed since 2016 when we first asked customers if they believed there was a larger risk that smaller suppliers could go bankrupt, leaving them without electricity for a period of time. Five years ago, 37% of those we surveyed agreed with the statement. When asked the same question in 2021, more than half agreed (51%) [4].   

The energy crisis has clearly led to a crisis of confidence amongst customers across the board, with less than half (47%) [5] of those we surveyed in 2021 saying they still trust their provider. Add to this a decreased appetite to switch and a preference for larger businesses, and we could see a long-term contraction of the energy market to a few key players who consumers feel are more likely to have the capacity to deliver on their promises.

Rebuilding customer trust and commitment

The same is applicable to all service-related businesses across a range of industries. Both Covid and the energy crisis have resulted in changes to customer behaviours and attitudes, which means brands must now rebuild trust and reassess their value proposition so that it extends beyond the cost of services and factors in service delivery. Customers want stability and consistency; they want to know you can meet your commitments to them.

With this in mind, what should be your priority when it comes developing your brand proposition? Our research tells us that since Covid, the following factors have become more important for customers choosing a product or service provider: stable company (63%); competitive pricing (62%); continuity of supply (59%); trustworthiness (59%); clear and transparent bills (54%); quality of customer service (52%); open communication (51%); and evidence of environmental responsibility (47%).

These are the considerations that should now influence not only your messaging, but the actions you take. For example, do you need to invest in your business infrastructure to render it more stable, such as upgrading your fleet to ensure that goods can be delivered? Could you partner with the Consumers’ Association to garner greater trustworthiness? And what about hygiene factors, do you need to invest more in a workforce that’s also feeling the impact of the pandemic?

Covid may have brought instability to our everyday lives, yet into 2022 and beyond, businesses can respond to this research and embrace opportunities for brand re-positioning. Insight is where your brand begins, it’s what builds the integrity and continuity that customers are now seeking. Used strategically, it has the potential to transform your business by putting the customer first and powering your growth. So, don’t fear the data, think of it as your map for the future.

[1] Populus online survey March 2019. Base: UK Nationally representative respondents (n=2,004)

[2] Yonder online survey October 2021: Base: UK Nationally representative respondents (n=1,057)

[3] Yonder online survey October 2021: Base: UK Nationally representative respondents (n=1,057)

[4] Populus online survey January 2016: Base: UK Nationally representative respondents (n=2,013); Yonder online survey October 2021: Base: UK Nationally representative respondents (n=1,057)

[5] Yonder online survey October 2021: Base: UK Nationally representative respondents (n=1,057)