In the media

What’s missing when it comes to customer experience?

Energy Central

25 May 2019

This article first appeared in Energy Central

At the recent CS WEEK conference in Phoenix, the efforts that utilities are making to improve the customer experience were on full display. Utilities have worked to understand how their customers interact and engage with them through journey mapping, surveys, and focus groups. And work continues in earnest to improve billing, payment, and credits and collections processes, but there is no shortage of efforts to continue improving the customer experience.

However, what is lacking is a critical examination around how the aspirations, behaviors, and expectations of customers are shifting, how those shifts could have significant ramifications on the customer-utility relationship, and what utilities should be doing to address these shifts.

The energy sector is much more dynamic than it was 10 years ago. Rapid advances in technology, social norms, and policy are driving shifts in customer aspirations and expectations, leading utilities to continuously drive customer service improvements. What is missing is the forward-looking view. Utilities need to anticipate where customers will be in 5-10 years, what their needs and expectations will be, and then act proactively to understand how those customers are shifting. Most of all, utilities must to be prepared to meet the emerging needs of their consumers and understand the implications if they do not.

Consider the case of the three largest gaming operators in Las Vegas. As massive, 24/7/365 consumers of energy, those companies accounted for about 10% of the local electric utility’s load. But, energy also accounted for a significant portion of their operating costs, so they focused on finding a transformative way to reduce those costs. Moreover, to appeal to a wider, more diverse customer base, the three gaming operators also sought to become leaders in sustainability and clean energy. The local utility had not adequately understood the magnitude of the gaming companies’ shifting needs, and its responses fell short. In the end, all three gaming companies filed petitions with the state regulators to exit from the local utility and establish their own independent sources of energy generation and distribution. Other companies have followed suit.

On the residential side, more consumers are looking for ways to reduce energy consumption, save money, and go green. Today, most utilities are participating only begrudgingly in residential solar and storage markets, although quite a few utilities are playing a supporting role in the growth of electric vehicle infrastructure. A conversation with a recent buyer of an electric vehicle, solar roof system, and an energy storage wall revealed the absolute excitement and technological fascination of that customer and their new-found participation in the energy ecosystem. The customer’s only comment about the local electric service provider was that they were looking forward to the day when they could fully cut the cord.

Granted, these are only a few examples of shifting customer aspirations and expectations, but those numbers are growing. So how can a utility build this forward-looking view, take concrete steps to understand shifting customer expectations, and build those insights into plans for change? Here are a few recommended steps:

  1. Ask new questions as you engage with customers. The interactions that most utilities have with their customers are about existing service provision-gathering information about service calls, website usage, or contact center interactions. Utilities need to find new ways to understand customers‘ goals, aspirations, and desired outcomes, and understand how energy consumption ties to those goals and aspirations. Group customers by desired outcomes rather than the more typical demographics such as consumption, location, or socio-economic status.
  2. Look at existing information about your customers in new ways. Learn how to apply advanced analytics to extract insights about your customers‘ goals and aspirations.
  3. Build a vision for a future customer experience delivery model. The model should identify new capabilities to position your utility to deliver on the aspirations and desired outcomes of your customers in a balanced yet flexible way.
  4. Execute on the vision. Identify and prioritize the programs and initiatives required to achieve the desired customer experience. Understand the organizational and cultural change needed to bring the utility along to a customer-centric view. Articulate the value of the new model to customers, stakeholders, and regulators to secure buy-in and commitment. Ensure that all changes implemented will create better services for forward-thinking customers.

Utilities have made great strides in reacting to the ever-changing competitive landscape in which they operate. Investments in customer surveys, journey mapping, and focus groups are a useful first step, but to become more forward-looking, utilities must re-envision their interactions with customers to ensure they are truly understanding their needs. By viewing the customer as the center of their business model, utilities can set in motion a transformation that will allow them to offer better service for today, and tomorrow.

Spencer Borison is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting

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