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Improving the customer experience by optimising contact centers in the utility sector

matt chwalowski and wayne lafferty | energy central | 14 july 2016

For utility companies, the client experience in customer service calls remains of equal importance for retaining existing customers and attracting new ones, particularly during outages or other challenging events. The basic tenants of the conversation and the experience the customer is looking for during the call are quite simple: they want action now and satisfaction of their needs quickly and effectively. 

This “sweet spot” is best measured by the lowest number of calls per customer annually and the shortest live call duration (as measured by Average Handle Time or AHT).  The best utility contact centers, by proper and relentless focus on these two metrics, will maximise both customer and agent satisfaction, which in turn will lead to top quartile performance for both service level and financial measurements. And yet, operating in this “sweet spot,” while desirable for the utility contact centers, remains difficult because they don’t adequately address both customer and agent needs. 

The Challenge: Operating in the “Sweet Spot”

When a customer calls a utility company contact center, they do not want to experience problems that require calling the utility any more than absolutely necessary. Yet, contact center agents often do not know how to handle customers effectively and efficiently, thus increasing call duration for those necessary live calls. 

Utilities that leverage their contact centers to address both customer and agent needs effectively are able to create trusted relationships with customers, which produces upsell opportunities and more productive interactions during outage or other challenging events.  The bottom line is that when happy agents use each interaction to create happy customers, costs are reduced and regulatory escalations are minimised.

The solution to operating in the “sweet spot” is relatively straight forward. Handling calls effectively and efficiently requires creation of a structured and precise operation through investment in the “science of management” of contact center operations.  This discipline systematically and simultaneously focuses on six key attributes of successful customer service organisations.

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The Solution: Understanding and Implementing the “Science of Management”

Ultimately, the investment in the “science of management” of contact center operations should reduce AHT to around 210 seconds for a combination utility and even lower for a single-service operation, as compared to the current AHT average of more than 300 seconds at combination utility companies. To put these targets in perspective, AHT above 250 seconds indicates opportunities for improvement; AHT of 300 seconds and above implies severe circumstances exist. Un-optimized calls also often result in an unpleasant and frustrating work environment for contact center agents.  Therefore, reducing call volumes and AHT allow both customers and agents to win.

This investment inside the contact center should be coordinated with the elimination of upstream operational errors to prevent calls from ever being made. The implications of upstream operational errors for the contact center are often over-looked.  Calls resulting from failures elsewhere in the service delivery platform are typically exception-type calls that increase call volumes and handle time and often result in escalation or even regulatory intervention.  In these instances, customers are typically having a bad experience with the utility before the call is even initiated.  Experience shows that 15% of calls received by utility contact centers are excessively long, which typically leads to irate customers. Resolving the root cause for these non-transactional calls prevents the worst types of calls and allows agents to stay focused on more routine and pleasant situations.

Every contact center that is not running at close to a 210 second AHT has a potential to provide a better customer experience and more pleasant working environment for its agents. Simply put, higher AHT operations are progressively less friendly places for agents to work without undue stress, which can be costly to utility companies due to attrition levels and the costs associated with training new hires, especially in non-union environments.  Therefore, a 210 second AHT contact center reflects a structured and precise operation – you do not need to ask your agents about their job satisfaction, just look at the AHT.

The bottom line is that strong contact center operating outcomes are achievable for all companies. The necessary conditions for these outcomes is threefold: (1) applied content knowledge, (2) learning operations framework with feedback, and (3) an actionable measurement system.  The focus on a strong operation best serves all parties involved – including customers, employees and management – as compared to alternatives.  

Matt Chwalowski and Wayne Lafferty are energy and utility experts at PA Consulting Group

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