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The uphill challenge for utilities: exceeding customer expectations

This article first appeared in Energy Central

The bar for customer engagement and self-service via mobile and web channels has been set high by the likes of Amazon and financial institutions. Proactive notifications about order status, deliveries, bill due dates, etc. are conveniently sent with real-time updates. Customers can pay bills, transfer money, order a new product, and update account details wherever and whenever they want, right from their smart phones.

For the most part, Electric Utilities can’t offer their customers the same experience or convenience - not even close. To illustrate, let’s look at a real-life story of what life is like for a typical utility customer when there is a power outage. This story is about Nancy. Nancy is a new mom with a 3 month old baby, she and her husband recently moved into their new home. 

One afternoon, Nancy's power went out. Unsure if it was a temporary outage or something more serious, she found the phone number for her Utility on her recent bill and called. She was connected to the Utility’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which – after navigating through a clunky menu – informed Nancy that her power outage was known and it would not be restored for 4 hours. This was a default ETR, of course, but Nancy didn't know that.

Knowing how long the power would be out, and worried about her baby, Nancy drives to her parent’s house, 50 miles away, with the intent to spend the night. After getting the baby settled, Nancy decided to call her Utility again to get an update on the power outage. She navigates the IVR phone menu but this time is informed by an automated message that her power has been restored!

After the hour long drive home, Nancy is anxious to settle in at home but as she pulls into her driveway, she notices that there aren’t any lights on anywhere, as her power is still out! Frustrated and tired, she calls the Utility again, this time bypassing the IVR so she can speak directly to a customer service representative. The customer service representative apologizes, notes that they see an outage in Nancy’s area and that the field crew will need to check on the outage, and unfortunately can’t share an update until the field crew assess the situation. 

Nancy’s experience is not uncommon, and neither is the update provided by the customer service representative (whose most commonly used phrase is “I’m sorry”). The Utility doesn’t have the kind of sophisticated systems, data or processes in place to provide Nancy with accurate, real-time information about the outage. The CSR doesn’t have accurate information either. They do their best, but unfortunately it falls far short of the kind of experience customers in advanced industries like retail and banking expect. 

When instances like Nancy’s situation come up, the damage to the Utility’s brand is undeniable and long-lasting. Depending on the customer, this can often be highlighted on social media, where customers now register public complaints against large corporations by voicing their frustrations about a poor customer experience. All of this can lead to a banding together of customers and action being demanded, often leading to an intervention by the regulator. 

The good news is that Utilities can take steps to address these issues and modernize the customer experience. However, achieving this seemingly simple outcome for the Utility customer is not so simple.  There are a number of complex moving parts that need to happen in the background, and the sophistication of the systems, data and processes is a huge step for many Utilities who need to fundamentally change the way they operate in order to deliver a modern ‘digital’ customer experience.  Interestingly, this can be achieved in many ways depending on the sophistication of technology, from older AMR implementations to full blown smart grid rollouts. Of course, this story narrowly focuses on power outages but what about paying a bill online, arranging a partial payment, scheduling a move-in/move-out, or getting an efficient response to a new service or construction request. These types of examples illustrate that there are multiple touch points with customers that also need to be modernized.

While Utility customers in the past tolerated customer service that was less than optimal, this is no longer the case.  Utilities must act quickly and decisively - not for the sake of their customers, but for their own survival. As the market continues to evolve and a Utility's brand becomes more and more important, they must become more customer centric in all that they do, and fast!

Ross Smith, Craig Rintoul, and Jamison Roof are energy and utility experts at PA Consulting Group








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