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Shifting sands in the energy industry

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SSE Re-positioning a brand through contemporary customer experiences

In 2013, Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), Britain's second largest gas and electricity supplier, found itself at a strategic crossroads. Five years of industry-wide turmoil generated by price shocks, power cuts and mis-selling had finally taken its toll.

SSE grabbed the situation and turned it into an opportunity to reposition the brand. The first move was to turn its back on its biggest revenue driver – doorstep sales. Before the financial crisis, this accounted for nearly half of all customer switching in the industry. Faced with investigations by industry regulator Ofgem in 2011, SSE became the first of the Big Six to suspend door-to-door activities. Then, in August 2013, it called an end to cold-calling too. A new approach was desperately needed. The new chief executive Alistair Phillips-Davies began a radical plan to reshape SSE's gas, electricity and telecoms retail business – a business with 9.1m customers in the UK and Ireland, and a turnover of £9bn.

Back to basics design with a big brand impact

We were appointed as the lead digital agency in June 2013 to develop a new customer experience and shift engagement to digital channels in a “simple, value-adding and relevant” way. In a highly regulated and commoditised market, SSE wanted customers to “trust the company to do the right things for them.” By differentiating itself through digital excellence, it achieved exactly that. Uniquely among the Big Six, SSE wanted a customer experience that appealed to digital natives - building long-term loyalty among the customers of tomorrow without alienating older and more traditional customers. A difficult balancing act, but one we were determined to crack. After getting to grips with this complex industry and its customers, we used the new brand identity (created by SSE's branding consultancy Elmwood) as a launchpad to develop a lighter and brighter digital identity. We began with two design concepts, both heavily user tested, to make sure customers were always at the centre of our approach. The first took a radically stripped back approach and proved popular among older users (“really simple, we like simple”).

The second emphasised progressive disclosure, allowing users to drill down and explore all necessary details (“don't hide stuff from me,” “you get all the information you need”). Typically, this approach was more popular with younger users.

After extensive focus group testing our second concept was chosen, while our first concept's emphasis on simplicity also underpinned the customer journey. “We suggested the user experience started simple but had the ability to reveal the detail,” says Benedict Ireland, our head of UX.

“This chimes with a sweeping trend in the design world to simplify interfaces. For SSE, it was also about moving from the way utilities, starting on their home page, tend to fire information at users at a terrifying rate. It's such a universal trait. If you were a cynic, you might wonder if it's intentionally designed to create inertia rather than illumination.”

Engaging customers at every entry point

Finding a new gas and electricity supplier typically starts at a price comparison site. This search takes at least a week, and then attention shifts to two or three specific offers.

At this point, customer priorities also switch. Convenience is the most important factor rather than price. At the top of the funnel, the ease of getting the job done is critical.

“In this market, the sites with the quickest and smoothest approach to getting you through the journey tend to win out,” says Paul Bishop, one of our managing partners. “People don't go to your site to read about the quality of the electricity you're supplying. You really don't want to start foisting a John Lewis-style retail experience on them. Speed and convenience is a key focus of the design, it's a singular focus on every page.”

A streamlined journey means minimal information is input by the customer, making sure the sign up process is over in just four pages. By contrast, SSE's biggest rival asks for up to 40 pieces of data before sign up, across six pages often cluttered with promotional distractions.

As a result, our frictionless design solution feels more like a successful airline's digital experience than a retailers.

Design that's strategically aligned

After extensive talks about SSE's strategic aims, we developed 10 design principles. One of these – “do the hard work for customers” – emerged as the standout during usability testing.

Doing the hard work for millions of customers undoubtedly involves significant underlying system development. The credit checking process for new customers on the revamped site was a case in point. Historically, SSE asked 10 questions during this process. We realised it could be cut to just five (name, DOB , email, phone and address), but only if the newly-upgraded tech infrastructure worked harder than initially expected.

Underlying factors like these created a healthy tension between us and Accenture, SSE's systems integrator. SSE intentionally appointed separate agencies for digital, UX and systems integration to maximise the benefits of any creative tension. Very clever, we thought.

The rollout of this new identity and digital experience was accompanied by extensive stakeholder engagement. We held several meetings to showcase our work to SSE's staff and set up a dedicated program team to discuss the project with senior management, keeping them up to speed at all times.

Our ultimate aim was to produce a solution that isn't hamstrung by preconceptions about how a utility should or shouldn't behave. We couldn't be happier with the end result – a framework that offers significant flexibility for the future but with a clear and contemporary execution. Most important of all, our site does the hard work for the customer, so we think it's mission accomplished.

Contact us For more information

Paul Bishop

Paul Bishop

Managing Partner


0207 395 4800

Benedict Ireland

Benedict Ireland

Head of UX


0207 395 4800

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