Southern Water
What we did
Design research
Content strategy
User experience design
Design sprints
Training and workshops

Southern Water had a serious problem: the cost of serving each customer was high by industry standards, and despite the high spend, customers didn’t seem to be too happy about the service. The most relevant evidence we found: half of new customers call up after receiving their first bill, confused about what they’ve been billed, and why.

The internal structure of the company was compounding this problem: as with many companies, the customer experience sits across departments and organisations with very different goals and budgets. To help Southern Water, we’d need to create alignment to find a strategic win.

Clearleft swiftly demonstrated how quickly we could create designs using ‘guerrilla tactics’ that naturally brought together Customers, Southern Water Staff, internal data and wider research to create a prototype. This was done with energy that spread across our team and has left us with a different view on how we can drive a more effective improvement in our web channels.
Rob Cockburn
Rob Cockburn Customer Services Transformation Programme Manager, Southern Water
As I perused the customer service line call logs, reading carefully through the notes, a theme emerged: it wasn’t that the bills were for the wrong amounts, it was that customers weren’t being presented with the information in a simple, understandable way.
Ben Sauer, UX Lead, Clearleft

The Results

Fixed a critical problem for users

The results of our prototype test showed that we had successfully fixed the nagging issue of bill shock, which, when launched, has a high potential of increasing customer satisfaction.

Lowered cost-to-serve

Thousands of unnecessary customer-service phone calls are likely to disappear because of our bill redesign, with a potential cost-saving of millions of pounds.

Demonstrated a new way of working

By working transparently onsite, and by exposing stakeholders to customers during the testing, we’ve showed the organisation the power of design-thinking and putting users first.

The Full Story

How do you find the biggest opportunity to focus on?

When Southern Water first approached us, it wasn’t immediately clear on the best way we could help. Should we tackle content strategy? Information architecture? The customer journey? A tactical problem, like the home page? It took a few meetings to find our real target. We love it when a customer is willing to trust us in ‘pathfinding’. Southern Water were keen for us to guide them in finding the best strategy. It helped that we’d worked with members of their team for other clients.

One early thought was to map the customer experience with the goal of making it easy to pinpoint where efforts should go, later on. It became clear that given their existing plan to re-platform the website, this was too abstract a deliverable; we needed to design something that delivered value, and quickly.

Even though there was no overview, Southern Water had built up an excellent body of knowledge about the customer experience. When we starting asking questions about the most common problems that customers faced, and where the big cost savings could be made, it revealed a number of phases in the customer journey that had the most potential to positively impact the customer if rethought.

We settled on an approach somewhat like a design sprint: Take a known issue, spend time understanding it, design a solution, and then test it with customers, all in a very short space of time (3 weeks).

But which part of the customer journey should we approach? To figure this out, we used PACE prioritisation. Our PACE diagrams had two axes: Feasibility (how easy is it to solve a problem?) and Importance (what’s the potential strategic impact?). By plotting the problems on this diagram, it becomes easier to see what we should tackle first.

We settled on billing enquiries as our top priority. 50% of new customers were calling in to query their first bill, flooding the call centres with questions. If we could design something that answered those questions within the bill, we could reassure customers that they were being billed the correct amount, and stop millions of pounds of cost in unnecessary phone calls. As the issue was mostly one of communication (i.e. how the information is presented) rather than a fundamental change to a service, we felt it was a relatively inexpensive problem to solve.

How do you help an organisation change its approach to customer experience?

We were determined to help Southern Water get internal exposure to the project. That way we could:

  • gather internal expertise on the billing problem
  • prove the value of a design-led approach
  • advocate a more transparent way of working
  • expose decision makers to customers

In order to show the maximum number of staff what we were up to, Southern Water graciously reserved us a working space in a busy area of their office that we dubbed ‘The Design Sauna’. We’d work onsite, put all of our work-in-progress on the walls for everyone to see, and hold informal meetings in the space to gather a full understanding of the problem.

Man and woman looking at office wall with design sketches

In the end this approach worked wonders - we were just metres away from people talking to customers all day. At any point, we could ask questions of customer agents, or get customers on the phone, and curious staff could drop by.

How do you work together to understand users?

A very short discovery phase meant we had to gather as much input as possible into the billing problem very quickly. Our starting point was the call logs: customer agents record lots of detail that we could examine.

Whilst the logs told us what the calls were about, it didn’t tell us the ‘why’ - what was the root cause for a customer to query a bill? How did they feel about the experience?

We began targeting those customers who had recently called in to query a paper bill they’d received to find out why. With every call we added to a large map of the billing journey on the wall.

Display board covered in design sketches and customer journey maps

We also gathered input from informal drop-ins to our space, rather than have to book time with already busy experts.

Example findings from this work:

  • Water-use is less-well understood than other utilities like gas and electricity.
  • The way in which direct-debit amounts are calculated is hard to understand.
  • Some customers were perceiving a ‘higher-than-actual’ monthly cost.

By the end of this discovery phase, we felt like we had a good understanding of the problem, which we played back to the team as a sanity check to ensure we were heading in the right direction.

We also set ourselves an ambitious challenge: could we design a bill so good that other utilities would copy it, even in a very short space of time? We needed to design something that helped people understand the relationship between time, use, and cost.

How do you design and test an idea quickly?

Our discovery of the customer experience sparked a few hypotheses to test. For example: even if you don’t receive a bill every month, is it better to express billing on a month-by-month basis, given that’s how customers think of utility bills?

This was a key realisation in our process: customers’ expectations of a service are bound by comparison to other services. Your other household bills affect the way you perceive your water bill - if other bills are monthly, it’s natural to think of all bills as month-by-month, even when they’re not.

Once we knew which parts of the journey to test, and our hypotheses, we designed just four screens. We didn’t need a working system - just enough of a prototype where a real customer could comprehend what the bill amount was, and why they were being billed that much. It didn’t even need their real data - just realistic enough that the test participants would find it believable.

Testing day came around, and we setup our spaces so that we could run the tests in one room, while the team (or anyone interested) observed in the Design Sauna. Throughout the day, staff and stakeholders alike got to observe what the participants made of our design.

At one point in the testing - one of the participants confirmed our hypothesis about monthly billing by repeating it back to us in their own words. It’s both surprising and satisfying to see your ideas supported by first-hand feedback.
Ben Sauer, UX Lead, Clearleft

The prototype turned out to be a resounding success. All of the participants understood the key reasons for the billing amounts, and gave us some useful things to improve later on.

The home-page we’d designed in only a matter of hours performed very well too, leaving some stakeholders believing they were looking at the next iteration of the website.

More work