News

Interview with Janine Young, Ombudsman, Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW


1 June 2017

Utilities Disputes interviewed Janine Young, Ombudsman, Energy & Water Ombudsman, NSW, Australia. Janine was appointed Ombudsman in November 2014. Prior to joining EWON, she had extensive experience providing independent dispute resolution services, both as the Victorian Public Transport Ombudsman and as the Deputy Ombudsman at the Energy and Water Ombudsman (Victoria).

We asked Janine about her experience regarding identifying and resolving complaints.

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I worked for Ford Australia for many years.  In 1992 when Jac Nasser was President, he identified that, Ford did not value customer feedback and complaints, with a culture focused on a view that Ford sold cars to dealerships, not customers. Ford had warranty information about car defects but the value of being able to improve cars and service based on what customers were saying was missing, and as a result, customer loyalty was impacted.  Under Jac’s watch, a Customer Assistance Centre was established and promoted through the media, so that the voice of Ford customers was heard.  Complaints doubled, not surprisingly, because someone was listening.  This was viewed as being positive as it increased customer retention and provided further opportunities for improving quality. 

In 2003, I left the automotive industry and joined the Energy and Water Ombudsman in Victoria (EWOV).  I was surprised to learn that many energy companies felt a complaint was to be avoided; staff within those companies did not label what they saw or heard as a complaint.  Part of the reason may have been that complaint volumes had to be reported to the regulator and in response to that, some companies had established key performance indicators (KPIs) focused on reducing complaints.  This meant that staff reported complaints as “enquiries” and “feedback” – the unexpected, or perhaps not unexpected, consequence of KPIs which may not have been clearly thought through.

The end result of this approach was that companies did not gather complaint data for root cause analysis and therefore, business improvement.  Also, when customers rang up to complain and they got a response along the lines of, thank you for your feedback, many customers felt it was a slap in the face.  Staff in customer service teams kept on responding to the same complaint issues over and over. Eventually the companies began to realize the problem.  By the time I left EWOV in 2010, complaint recognition, reporting and resolution had changed.  Complaints were reported as complaints and were valued by most companies as learning tools.  Systemic issue or root cause analysis tools were also introduced.

When I was appointed Public Transport Ombudsman in Victoria in 2010, I found it was back to the past, with a culture where passengers were considered by some as being the cause of late trains and complaints were not valued.  I had to start all over again; the same issues were in play.  Fortunately it was at a time when the sector was open to change driven by the introduction of a new ticketing system and a strong government focus on customer service.

In November 2014, I returned to the energy sector in my current role. High levels of complaints to Energy Ombudsman offices across the eastern Australian states were on the decrease after systemic issues driven by the introduction of new billing systems had been finally addressed.  This gave me time to again reflect on the strategic value of complaints.

If a provider is not recognizing a complaint, the provider is not learning about systemic issues.  If they do not identify such issues, they keep resolving the same complaints over and over again.  Companies can spend a lot of money fixing things on a case by case basis but not getting to the root cause.  

In my experience, every complaint has multiple issues behind it.  The complaint itself might be about the amount of a bill or that a customer received three bills in three days, all with varying amounts.  Those are the facts.  But if the customer’s call is notrecognised as a complaint and resolved during that first call, or via escalation to the complaints team, it becomes a complaint about customer service too. The customer’s frustration increases and their resolution expectations increase.  It is much better to recognize that initial call for what it is – a complaint.  

Complaints recognized as complaints lead to a chance to change the relationship and put in service recovery.  It gives the provider a chance to say, “Sorry, we understand your dissatisfaction.”   When a customer hears the word “sorry,” they are likely to become a loyal customer, more loyal than before.  It’s one of the valuable outcomes of best practice internal dispute resolution (IDR).

If the provider actually has a team behind the complaint process that examines and fixes the underlying issues, then you have an even better win.  Sometimes the root cause can be the format of the bill or the training of customer service staff, or the wording of the contract. When you fix the problem, you get fewer complaints, therefore you need fewer dispute resolution staff, contact centre staff, less reliance on, and costs of, External Dispute Resolution etc.  The business case for good IDR is easy to build.

Customer confidence in the energy industry in Australia is currently very low.  Providers can turn that around by addressing systemic issues not only in their own company but across the industry.  That means acknowledging complaints and allowing the underlying issues to surface so they can be fixed.  Part of regaining confidence in the sector is the recognition of complaints.  
Energy is now a hot topic for the Australian media, not just about security of supply or renewables; pricing and affordability are a daily reported item.   From 1 July 2017, NSW customers will face an increase in network and wholesale pricing; we are still working through a change over from gross metering to net metering for 147,000 solar customers who were part of a solar bonus scheme which finished on 31 December 2016; and starting 1 December of 2017, the roll-out of digital meters by energy retailers will gain momentum.  And of course, new energy products, linked to supply contracts, are emerging.

All of these issues have the potential to increase complaints to my office, and we are starting to see this occur.  This is the time when customer-centric companies with best practice internal dispute resolution can become strong market leaders.