Three-quarters of consumers are perplexed by their energy bills, Which? finds, as a new report from the consumer champion shows that clearer communications from energy firms could help reduce bill anxiety and improve customer satisfaction.
Which?’s research found three-quarters of people (76%) are confused by their energy bill, while half (48%) of all consumers also said they experience a negative emotional response when reading their bills. Almost half (47%) said they find it stressful and a similar number (49%) said it makes them feel anxious – this stress is even more common when energy bills are unclear.
One 44-year-old man from London said: “The energy bills…just generally they are a nightmare. Like the kilowatts per hour, whatever they’re measuring, it’s just like, “Wow, oh my God, where do they come up with all this stuff?” So yes, I find it a nightmare.”
With energy bills a source of worry for many during the cost of living crisis, it is really important customers are able to understand what they are being asked to pay and why, so that they can know how to balance their budgets and feel confident that their bills are accurate.
To test how well people understand their current bills and see how energy firms can improve their communications, the consumer champion gave more than 2,000 consumers a ‘control’ correspondence about a direct debit increase – based on emails and letters currently being sent out by energy firms – or an improved ‘test’ correspondence – engineered by Which? to be more comprehensible – to see which performed best.
Which?’s ‘test’ communications about an upcoming direct debit change contained a few key features to help make it easier to understand – such as using simple language, clearly explaining why the direct debit amount needs to change and using a personalised graph of the consumer’s energy usage.
The consumer champion’s research found that presenting information in a clearer way improved people’s understanding of their bill. Almost half (45%) of consumers who received Which?’s improved communications answered a set of comprehension questions correctly – compared to just a quarter (27%) of those who saw the mock control communication.
Two-thirds (65%) of those who received Which?’s ‘test’ correspondence explaining the direct debit changes completely understood why the change was needed. This compares to half (48%) of those who saw existing communications – a significant improvement.
Consumers who did not receive any explanation were much more likely to challenge the change – four in 10 (38%) said they would challenge it compared to three in 10 (28%) of those who received Which?’s test explanation.
At a time when customer services are already under increasing pressure as a result of the cost of living crisis, making this simple change could help energy firms reduce their call waiting times and customer complaints.
The consumer champion’s research found that clearer energy bill communications also reduce people’s anxiety around their bills and improve trust in their provider. Of the consumers who found the messages from their provider easy to understand, four in 10 (41%) reported finding their energy bills stressful. This almost doubled to seven in 10 (70%) for those who said their energy communications were difficult to understand.
Similarly, three-quarters of consumers (74%) who found their bills unclear reported that they did not trust their energy provider, compared to just three in 10 (30%) of those who find their bills clear.
Which? believes that these findings offer energy companies an important opportunity to learn from the energy crisis and improve their communications and relationship with their customers going forwards.
The consumer champion recommends that energy firms change their billing and direct debit communications to include: simple language, a clear explanation of how direct debits work and why any change is needed, a personalised energy usage graph, clear explanation of what action is needed from the customer and consider readability – for example, by highlighting key information in bold.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Our research has found that how energy firms communicate with their customers really matters – and can completely change how people feel about both their bill and their provider.
“Changes such as using simple language and clearly explaining why direct debits are changing – could help to reduce consumer’s stress and anxiety when reading their bills, improve trust in energy companies and reduce customer queries.
“Which? is calling on energy providers to take this opportunity to make their bills as clear and simple as possible.”
Notes to editors
More information around Ofgem’s guidelines for energy bill communications here.
Which? cost of living campaign
The consumer champion is launching a campaign calling on businesses in essential sectors – supermarkets, telecoms and energy – to do more to help their customers through the cost of living crisis. More information on the campaign is available here.
Yonder surveyed 2,082 nationally representative UK adults on behalf of Which? in January 2023 in order to gain an understanding of consumers’ current experiences of communications from their energy providers and to test possible improvements.
Firstly, Which? asked respondents about the levels of stress and anxiety they experience when engaging with energy bills, and explored how this affects consumer trust in energy providers and demand for customer service.
Secondly, Which? tested possible improvements that could be made to energy communications and their impact on customer comprehension, using a series of experiments which allowed us to compare different variations of energy bill communications.
The verbatim is taken from the Which? Cost of Living Panel is a longitudinal qualitative panel which ran from October 2022 until September 2023 (also cited in the full energy communications report). Households within the panel were asked a series of questions about the energy sector, including their experience of energy bills. The panel consists of 29 households from across the UK, who regularly participate in monthly online tasks and in-depth interviews.
Figure 1: The mock ‘control’ examples of existing energy communications
Figure 2: The mock ‘test’ communication, including the key features and principles of clear consumer communication. The statistics demonstrate how many research participants found these features useful
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