Are you feeling an autumn chill yet? If so, you are probably thinking of switching on the central heating - but the prospect of a sharp rise in energy prices next month may persuade you to reach for a sweater instead.

Unless you were out of the country last week (another alternative for staying warm) you’re unlikely to have missed Scottish & Southern Energy’s (SSE) announcement that it was raising domestic energy prices by an average of 8.2%.

It was the first of the energy giants to announce a price rise and the news caused a storm of protest from customers, consumer groups and politicians raising concerns over fuel poverty for pensioners and low-income families.

It is a prime example of a complex ‘event’ announced by an essential service provider which has significant ramifications for customers and also has a major impact on customer service teams responding to calls from anxious customers. It got me thinking about the extent to which senior management of essential service providers routinely include contact centre managers and agents in advance planning ahead of controversial announcements.

SSE’s Group Managing Director of Retail and Director of Customer Services were both among the senior SSE team in the media hot seat following the announcement and their recurrent comment was “We’re sorry we have to do this.”

I can’t help but wonder whether a similar script was issued to contact centre agents fielding a wave of emotionally-charged calls without the benefit of the extensive media training no doubt given to the executive team. To be fair, SSE did announce it had set up a free phone number for customers to call to discuss how to manage bills, which is evidence of forethought.

Nevertheless, in a climate where consumer trust is at a low ebb, particularly in the wake of mis-selling scandals, we should remember what a tough job it is to personally handle the kind of calls that surely came SSE’s way. The fact that the company was clear on the factors behind the price increase is only of so much help in such circumstances.

SSE is fighting to regain consumer trust after receiving a £10.5 million fine for mis-selling, the largest ever penalty imposed on an energy provider. Part of its effort was an innovative move to offer compensation to consumers, not for mis-selling, but if SSE breaks customer service promises - see SSE’s blog 

Under the new policy, SSE will pay customers if it fails to call them back when it says it will, transfers them to more than one call operator without their permission, or fails to let them speak to a manager when requested.CEO Alistair Phillips-Davies said he was determined to eliminate the kinds of experience “where people are not helpful, hang up on you, you get transferred around and around and then disappear into the telephonic abyss”.

Hiking prices so soon afterwards can’t have helped in the battle to regain customer trust and certainly won’t boost customer satisfaction, but as a policy stance on living up to service promises, it was an interesting move. It will be intriguing to see if others follow.

A manic level of contact centre activity in SSE would undoubtedly have been mirrored in centres responsible for handling calls to the energy regulator, consumer watchdogs, Citizens Advice and energy switching companies. An unhappy mix of consumer anxiety, market confusion, political and media outcries and resultant spikes in call volumes is becoming an increasing feature of today’s customer contact environment and the ripple effects are becoming wider.

It is a timely reminder of the value of CCA Global Standard© which contains valuable guidelines and operating principles for organisations who run critical services. Organisations that undergo Standard© accreditation have to demonstrate that there is a rigorous due process for ensuring good communication between the contact centre and the rest of the operation - an important consideration in cases like SSE.

We’re currently working on further strengthening this module as we develop Global Standard© Version 6. Energy companies like SSE benefit enormously from working with Global Standard© as it helps them to accelerate progress and demonstrate to customers and employees alike that they mean what they say.