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Putting district heating customers first

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Type “putting the customer at the heart of everything we do” into Google and you’ll get more than 2.8 million search results. It’s become a business truism – of course we do that – if not a cliché. So how is the district heating sector making those words meaningful?

District heating can be a tricky customer proposition to manage, presenting a specific set of challenges relating to customer engagement and experience. Customers are generally required to sign long term contracts and are not able to switch supplier. They are likely to pay the same, or very similar rates as their neighbours – and before the advent of heat meters this was often irrespective of the amount of heat used. At the same time, district heating projects are expensive capital projects where risk needs to be shared among many partners.

So how is industry tackling these challenges? In some truly inspirational ways which leave no doubt that putting the customer at the heart of what they do is key to success.

Heat Trust launched in 2015 as a customer protection scheme for people living on heat networks. Its vision is that all heat customers should be assured dependable heat supplies and excellent customer service. The customer service standards set by Heat Trust are overseen by an independent Stakeholder Committee, which is responsible for ensuring the standards remain fit-for-purpose and proposing amendments to drive forward continued improvement.  

In just two years, it has grown to cover 51 heat networks and more than 30,200 customers. Its recent annual report found that only 6% of customers on heat networks made a complaint, compared to 11% on standard electricity or gas supplies. The most common causes for complaint related to billing issues (74%); within this, the most frequent topic was standing charges (54%). Heat Trust provides a route through which complaints can be taken to the Energy Ombudsman, ensuring that district heating customers are offered the same levels of support and protection as others within the energy system. Their growing data set is helping the industry to identify the real issues that householders face and discover new and innovative ways of putting the customer in control.

ADE members Pinnacle Power are proud of the approach to customer engagement that they have put in place at Greenwich Peninsula in London. The basis behind the structure for the Greenwich Peninsula ESCo, GPEL, which owns the heat network infrastructure, was to put the residents first so that they are confident they are getting value for the heat consumed from the network.  

Pinnacle Power has achieved this in part by getting buy-in from the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Greater London Authority to be a part of a Governance Committee. This governance agreement ensured that there was a committee, meeting quarterly, which would force compliance with appropriate pricing and customer service obligations. At every governance meeting, the company reports on all complaints, down-time, and repairs made on the network, so that the committee has a very transparent view of service levels. The committee acts as an escalation point and a point of comfort to residents.

At the recent ADE Awards, the Customer Engagement Award of the Decade was presented to Switch2, and it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the support that they offer to customers. Switch2 provide customer service and management for over 500 district heating schemes serving 70,000 customers. Resident Liaison Officers act as the bridge between customers, installation teams and network operators. Home visits are offered to new customers with clear demonstrations of heating controls, and further support is available through multiple channels and in multiple languages. Community energy clubs help local residents think more widely about their energy use. You can watch a short film about Switch2’s work with customers here.  

Companies like Switch2 and Pinnacle Power, along with those actively involved in Heat Trust are demonstrating that the district heating sector is taking steps towards “putting the customer at the heart of everything we do”. As more and more district heating networks are developed across the country, it is this commitment to openness, quality and fairness that will help bring them into the mainstream.

Putting the customer first is a key theme of Heat and Decentralised Energy 2017, a one-day conference on Thursday 30 November at The Crystal, London. You can register your place and join the debate at http://www.heatconference.co.uk/booknow



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Guest Sunday, 15 December 2019