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UK Energy Quotation and Switch Process Analysis

Comparing the quote and switch processes for suppliers

Created by Al Mackin

Why study the quotation and switching processes for energy companies?

Signing up for an energy supplier, or moving suppliers, can be a frustrating process. Most suppliers require a lot of information from you, and some of the questions won't be easy to answer (specifically around energy usage). The end result is likely that you will move supplier and save money, but the challenge for energy companies is that the customer doesn't have to change.

In a market where the user has no absolute requirement to complete your process then making the forms easy to use is critical. The customer that abandons the process may come back tomorrow, or next week, or more likely not at all. In congested markets users are more likely to be tempted by another supplier.

The competitive nature of the energy sector means that converting potential customers into paying customers is more important than ever.

Longer, more time consuming, forms will frustrated potential customers. This leads to:
Increased Abandonment Lower Conversions Higher Marketing CPAs

Our Analysis

I carried out this analysis in November 2017. I created a persona that was used across all the processes, meaning that the information I entered was standardised across all the forms.

In my analysis I counted only the required fields, so optional fields were noted but not included in my numbers.

Finally, when an average number is stated in this report it is a median average unless explained otherwise.

  • I analyzed and tested 39 forms

    I reviewed and marked the quotation processes for key UK energy companies

  • 52 metrics were used to measure performance

    My research is focused on every aspect of the form, from the form elements, to the timing and mobile usability.

  • I ranked and rated each form and process

    I scored each process based on the critical factors that will increase user frustration and decrease conversions

Four Key Take-aways

The best-performing energy companies cut the number of fields down to the minimum. Reducing the number fields means less effort, and less abandonment. The top five sites have a mean average of 15.75 fields, compared to 26.4 fields for the bottom five.

Marking required fields will reduce friction and time to complete. Clearly marking which fields are required, and which fields are optional, will make it easier for users to sail through your process. Having optional fields is questionable, but if the required fields remain unmarked then users will feel that they have to complete all the fields to progress.

Over a third of energy companies have no inline validation. 38.4% of forms have no inline validation, with just 30.8% of forms notifying the user of success and mistakes in fields. The remaining 30.8% notify just on mistakes. Guiding the user through the process will help you get more potential customers to convert, and notifying users of issues as they complete the process will help reduce abandonment. Notifying users when they have successfully completed a field will give them more confidence in their efforts, and have a positive impact on conversions.

Explain why you're asking for personal, or complex, information. When the user is asked to enter personal information (for example email, telephone, date of birth) or complex information (historic energy usage) they may question why you need that information. Will they be bombarded with emails and phone calls? Why do they need to find old bills to complete their previous energy usage? By explaining why this information is needed you can turn a negative into a positive. An example is: "We use your historic energy usage to give you an accurate quote", or "We use your email address to keep you updated on the energy switching process". The more comfortable you can make a user, the more likely they are to complete your forms.

Energy forms are significantly different in length

Each step or block in a process is a new page or new section for a potential customer to absorb. There's no magic number of steps that will lead to a higher conversion rate but there's likely to be drop off if the process gets too long.

If you're looking to optimise and are considering changing the number of steps that a user has to complete, then firstly take a look at the market. If everyone else is doing something different, then you're either beating the market or performing worse than it. In my research you can see that 50% of companies have a four or five step process. The average number of steps is 4, with 77% of companies having five or less steps.

Over my years of optimising forms I've seen that splitting, or combining steps, can have both a negative and a positive impact. It's an unpredictable optimisation, and often the changes require significant development resource.

The total fields in each process vary significantly

Decreasing the number of fields in a process is a predictable optimisation. There's likely to be a relationship between the total number of fields and the conversion rate. Predictability is critical to an optimisation process, as most organisations have limited resources.

In my research the difference between the highest and lowest number of fields across all the forms is significant, with Co-operative Energy requiring the user to complete 43 fields, and Bulb requiring just 14. The lowest number of fields in a non-challenger brand if 18 for Scottish Power. That's a large difference in time and effort required to complete the form, for what is ultimately the same process.

The average number of fields across all forms is 27. A potential customer who sees a shorter form is more likely to start, and complete it, and the time required to complete a shorter form is less. Aggressively reducing the size of the form, and reducing the effort required to complete it, will have a positive impact on conversion rates.

If reducing the number of fields that a user has to engage with is key, then how do you achieve this? The first pass is to remove any optional fields, unless they have significant value. Next, consider fields that are useful, but not vital to the process. Understanding what information is absolutely needed will highlight the fields that can be removed.

Reducing the number of fields can be achieved by changing the way you ask for information. An address lookup will reduce, for most users, the address process from around six fields, to just two. Advanced address lookups that ask the user to start typing their address in a single text box, then use pattern matching to find the address, reduce the six fields down to one for almost all users.

These examples of field reduction are just a starting point for the process. As you reduce the number of fields in your form and see the correlation with conversion rates, you will likely spend a large part of your optimisation time on field removal and simplification.

How long does it take to complete a quote/switch process?

The longer it takes to complete a form then the greater the chance of abandonment. Potential customers will get bored of a long process, or they may have time restrictions, and then they may give up.

On average it takes a potential customer 118.3 seconds to complete a quote/switch process, with the best performer (Solarplicity) taking just 73.6 seconds and the worst (Co-operative Energy) taking 186.2 seconds.

Apart from the time that it takes the user to input the information there are other factors in the total time to complete a process. They include the time to read and understand the questions, and when a form has more than one step, it will take additional time for that step to load, and then for the user to understand the mechanics of the next step.

The main factor in form completion time is the number of fields, with a general trend of a lower completion time when there are fewer fields. A secondary factor in time to complete is the type of fields used: text inputs take up the most time, followed by drop downs, then radio buttons and finally tick boxes. Radio buttons take an average of 2.8 seconds to complete (from absorbing the question, to selecting the answer) compared to 3.6 seconds for drop downs. Not only does a higher number of fields mean more time required entering data in the field, but also time between the fields, as the user completes one question and moves to the next one.

Comparing the average time per field for Bulb (the second quickest process to complete) and Solarplicity (the quickest process) shows the importance of choosing the right field types. Solarplicity has one more field than the Bulb in their process, but their average field time is 4.91 seconds, compared to 5.51 for Bulb. Solarplicity are using field types that are faster for the customer to complete, and their form is 3.6 seconds faster to complete than the Bulb process.

Why Radio Buttons save time

Radio buttons trump Drop Downs for two reasons. Firstly all of the potential options are visible and readable by the user on a radio button. A drop down requires the user to click and then read the options.

Secondly, the user has less total interaction with a radio button than a drop down, a drop down requires a minimum of two clicks versus the single click for a radio. With a form that has a significant number of fields then saving the user fractions of a second will add up to a good time saving, and a greater likelihood of conversion.

Engagement examples: radio vs drop down

From our aggregated timing data on forms (Formisimo tracks engagement with fields with millisecond accuracy) I can see that the time spent on a radio button (taken from the time of the interaction with the last field to the first engagement with the next field) is 2.8 seconds, whereas a drop down is 3.6 seconds.

Which field types are used the most?

How The Top Five Use Field Types (vs Bottom Five)

The field types used in a form can make a significant difference to the frustration that a user feels, and the time that they take to complete it.

Comparing the top five forms (ranked using our scoring at the base of the page) you can see how the top five performing processes have a greater percentage of text boxes than drop downs and tick boxes. The top and bottom five sites use the same ratio of radio buttons.

Radio buttons (where the user has a choice between two or more items, presented as items that are clickable) are much easier to complete than drop-downs. They're not ideal for when there's a lot of options, but when a user has to make a choice between two to four options it allows them all to be presented without the user having to click.

If you want to optimise your form by swapping field types there are three types that should be considered: radio buttons, drop downs and tick boxes. In certain scenarios you can change the field type from one to another, with the aim of making it faster for the user to understand the question and all potential answers, and faster to select the right option.

Comparing the UX of a text box (open, requires typing), drop downs (closed list, requires clicking and reviewing) and radio buttons (closed, all options visible) the radio button wins on total interaction required. A radio button requires a single click on the right option, whereas a drop down requires a minimum of two clicks, with an unfurling of the options that will then need to be read and absorbed.

If you see value in asking multiple choice questions then using radio buttons will help speed up the time for a user to complete.

Mobile Friendly Keyboards

The growth in mobile browsing presents new user experience challenges for forms. Beyond the way that a form is presented there's a second challenge of how the user enters data, and dealing with the complexity of data entry compared to entering information on a desktop.

The use of keyboard types on mobile devices makes it easier for potential customers to complete a form as it shows them the most relevant keyboard for the data input. As an example a number or telephone number field should show just the number keypad, rather than the full keyboard. A field that asks for an email address can show a keyboard that makes the "@" symbol visible without having to press the shift key. Adding this functionality to a field is relatively easy, and it generally has a positive impact on conversion rates.

Only 62% of companies use an email keyboard type on inputs that ask for email. Worse than that, only 38% of companies use a number or tel keyboard type on relevant fields.

Marking required fields makes it easier to complete forms

Marking the fields that a user has to complete will save them time. It guides them to which fields they absolutely have to enter information into, and which fields they can ignore (there's a question over whether you should have any optional fields in your process). A simple asterisk or similar notation will help the user understand how they can fast track the process.

My research shows a significant number of companies don't mark required fields: 84.6% have no marking, with 15.4% marking the fields that a user must complete.

Not Validating Inline Is A Missed Opportunity

Inline validation is a good way to highlight issues as a user moves through a form. When you have a form with complex questions this becomes a necessity. Showing errors whilst the user is engaging with a question is better than presenting them with a list of all their mistakes after they click submit.

Just 61.6% of sites have inline validation of some type, with 30.8% telling the user when they have entered data successfully and when they have entered it incorrectly. Looking back at the last nine industries that I have analysed, this is a relatively low uptake on full inline validation.

There is a significant optimisation opportunity for the 69.3% of companies that don't tell the user when they have successfully completed a field. Although a marginal gain, it is a light touch way to impact on conversion and form completion rates.

Validation - Gamifying Long Forms

Website visitors have all experienced frustrating forms and when they start to engage with yours they are carrying baggage from the times when a form has been annoying. The length of most forms suggests that it will be a painful process for them.

A good way to keep users motivated, and to challenge their belief that the experience will be painful, is to use positive validation as they enter data. This is often in the form of a tick box next to a field, and is shown as they exit the field and move to the next one. This positive validation keeps the user happy, and helps them believe that when they click the "submit" or "next" button that they will be successful.

Showing errors in-line is equally important, as the user doesn't have to wait until the end of the step to see if they have made mistakes. A good inline validation process will not only show the user if they have entered incorrect information in a field (and so so as they move out of the field) but it will also explain what they need to do to correct it.

Example of Inline Validation

An example of insurer AXA using full inline validation. They highlight when information is correct and also when a user makes a mistake (along with a full explanation of what the mistake is). In the image above I have left the postcode field blank, and then moved to the next field.

Let customers know they can contact you (if they really need to)

Adding customer service information to a form gives potential customers confidence that if they have an issue then they can contact you directly. They're unlikely to need to contact you, although some may have issues that you can help them with. By displaying phone numbers, or a livechat link, this boosts the confidence of the potential customer.

Email - to confirm or not confirm?

Email addresses are a critical part of the process, as the user will get sent important information.

The chart below shows how the market deals with email confirmation, and it's split almost 50:50.

The desire to remove the email verification field is driven by the need to reduce the size of the form, and the impact that this may have on conversion rates. This is a margin gain, with a potentially negative impact outside of conversion rates, so if you do decide to go to a single email field I'd suggest deploying a simple javascript solution to look at what the user has entered and check for common misspellings (e.g. hotnail, instead of hotmail) and to offer to correct this for the user.

Explaining Fields to improve form completion speed

When you ask for personal information from a customer, such as address or telephone number, the user may question why you need it. Explaining why you need it will give them confidence during the booking process. Some fields may just need a short explanation so the user understands the formatting, with address fields being a good example of this.

The explanations don't need to be long, nor take over the UX. They're there as a light touch way to customers who are curious, or concerned, about why you need specific information from them.

Energy quote and switch processes are toploaded

The average number of fields in Step 1 of a switch/quote process contained a mean average of 10.7% of the total fields in the process. As you move to Step 2 and Step 3 that increases (20.8% of fields in Step 2, 30.6% in Step 3). For the remaining steps an average of 22.4% of fields are in Step 4, 25.2% are in Step 5, 23.7% are in Step 6 and 26.3% in Step 7

The question over top-loading (or not) is an important one. Ask too many questions in the first step and the user will be put off, whilst having too many steps will make the user believe that they're engaging with a virtually endless process.

A sensible starting point is the average across all energy companies. Having a lighter first step is a good way to get people into the process, then spreading out your fields across the remaining steps is sensible. You're likely to split your steps by the type of information that you ask for.

In longer processes, show the user their progress

When confronted with a long process users think "How long is this going to take me?". When your process is split into multiple steps there's no way for them to know how many fields will appear in the next step, and the step after that.

Using progress or stage indicators will at least give the user an understanding of how many steps are required to complete the process. Traditionally this is at the top of each form, with labelling of the steps, and a marking of the current step.

Only 12.8% of sites have no marking of how many steps are in the process, so for those organisations this is an easy optimisation opportunity.

Displaying errors next to fields help users understand mistakes

When you want to tell a user that they've made an error in your form the messaging should be around the field that the error is in. Historically errors were sometimes shown at the top or the bottom of the page, meaning that the user had to memorise the messaging, then scroll up or down to the field that they needed to correct.

Alongside the use of inline validation, the way that users are informed about errors is changing. The best place for an error message is right next to the field that contains the incorrect information. Only 10.3% of energy companies don't do that, and they're making it harder for potential customers to understand, and complete their process.

Scoring All Companies

To score each company I generated a ranking out of 66, which took into account the number of steps and fields (related to the median score for each) and scored companies based on the percentage they were above or below this. I also scored companies based on the removal of unnecessary obstacles, and the mobile friendliness of each form based on the usage of mobile keyboard attributes. Other form features that I considered to be critical to conversion rates, such as inline validation, were also part of the final score.

The aim of our scoring was to take into account attributes of the form rather than the look and feel. Some forms were more attractive than others, but as design is subjective I chose not to apply any marks for forms that I felt looked better or worse.

See a full league table of energy companies with deeper scoring data and read about the methodology behind my scoring by entering your details:

ratings of all forms

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