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Utilities stand to enhance the customer experience, reduce costs by leveraging existing investments in IVR

This article first appeared in Utility Dive. 

As electric utilities look to provide an enhanced customer experience through more self-service options for their customers, they typically focus on digital channels, but utilities still receive millions of phone calls each year to their contact centers. Many utilities do not take advantage of the full capabilities already embedded within their IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems. The IVR is an effective self-service tool for those who continue to choose to call, as it can both enhance the customer experience and facilitate cost reductions. Utilities have already implemented IVR technology, and therefore, driving up IVR containment rates can be more cost effective in the short term than increased investments in other self-service technologies or upgrading the IVR with a visual or natural voice. While investments in web and mobile applications will continue to be important in enhancing the customer experience, the benefits of leveraging existing investments in IVR technologies should not be ignored.

Based on PA Consulting’s extensive benchmarking data base and our detailed industry knowledge gained working with utility clients, IVR containment rates are typically in the range of 25%-60%, meaning that between 40% and 75% of calls made by customers to utility contact centers are handled by live agents. For a medium-sized utility with about 4 million customer calls per year, moving from the low end of this range to the high end could save up to $14 million in operating costs and potentially enhance 1.4 million customer interactions.

One of the biggest issues is that IVR call routing is not designed around the most common call types, as many utilities do not have a line of sight to the underlying reasons for customer calls. Understanding why customers call and ensuring that scripting and IVR routing focuses on the main reasons for customer calls is critical. For example, from our recently conducted Customer Experience Insight Study, 25% of all customer calls are driven by billing, and thus, this option should be scripted early in the IVR.    

When customers have provided consent that calling from their number provides adequate authentication, then priming the IVR before routing is another effective mechanism. For example, on a blue-sky day, answering with the customer’s name, balance and due date may immediately contain the call. The ability to succinctly convey that a specific customer or service area is impacted by an outage has significant value in containment. Limiting unnecessary agent transfers is another opportunity, as too often customers trying to complete a self-service transaction drop out of the IVR. A review of the IVR script and logic for areas that automatically default to an agent transfer can help to reduce these issues and improve the customer experience.

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A common candidate for complete IVR self-service in utilities is making a payment. The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) applies to companies of any size that accept credit card payments. Many utilities satisfy PCI compliance requirements by contracting out part of the payment process to a PCI compliant hosting provider, which is typically either a bank or another qualified payment processing provider. This situation creates a need to seamlessly transfer customer calls from the utility’s IVR to the PCI compliant provider’s IVR, which is not always a seamless process, resulting in a negative customer experience. Therefore, opportunities to streamline this process will enhance the customer experience and reduce costs. 

Regularly reviewing IVR scripting and logic trees to assess messaging and identify improvements that can be easily implemented within existing systems can help to deliver multiple benefits using current technology and business processes while avoiding major investments.

If IVR containment is such an obvious win, why are utilities not doing this already? Based on our work with both major investor-owned electric and gas utilities and large municipal water and electric providers, we have observed that they may not have the time to review calls and fully understand the underlying causes, nor may they have the data analytics capabilities or tools to do so in an automated fashion. Additionally, those charged with running the contact center and the IVR are oftentimes too busy handling the day-to-day operations to take a step back and review how they might improve the customer experience. 

One of the key steps is to define a business case for IVR upgrade or replacement, such that the investment is aligned to the commensurate call reduction volumes and associated economics. In fact, we recently helped a utility define its strategy for IVR. We reviewed and analyzed the call volume to better align menu options to higher call volume areas, which reduced the number of calls handled by agents. 

As utilities move towards the strategic aspiration that customers complete all transactions as self-service options, either on their smartphones, via the web or within the IVR system, it is important that they recognize the IVR as a key component in delivering on this strategy.

Bill Newby and Wayne Lafferty are energy and utilities experts at PA Consulting

Contact the authors

  • Bill Newby

    Bill Newby

    PA energy and utilities expert

    Bill is a utility strategist with operational managerial experience in both the UK and North America.

    Insights by Bill Newby
  • Wayne Lafferty

    Wayne Lafferty

    PA energy and utilities expert

    Wayne is a utility regulatory, tariffs and rates expert with broad experience evaluating, designing and implementing water and electric service rates and other regulatory programs.

    Insights by Wayne Lafferty

Contact the energy and utilities team


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