Industry Stories

Three Key Questions for Successful Utility Customer Engagement

The electric utility industry is rather unique. While millions of customers rely on it, most take it for granted that their services will be available uninterrupted and perceive that they have limited control over their electricity bills. Most retail customers engage with their utility only when there is a power outage, for bill payment, or to effect a change in service. Consequently, the utility sector has lagged behind in digital customer experience and engagement capabilities compared to other industries such as retail or financial services.

However, the era of the passive retail customer is ending due to a number of external factors. The increasing adoption of electric vehicles (new demand) and the popularity of rooftop solar installations (new supply) are forcing customers to be more aware - of their electricity usage, available choices on sourcing electricity and the impact on their monthly bills. The availability of innovative devices and smart appliances that provide greater control over energy usage and ‘time of use’ metering introduce new variables and more choices that have financial implications. The climate change discussion is also making socially conscious customers realize that they need to pay more attention to how their electricity is sourced. As a result, retail customers are demanding more information and interactions with their utility.

What Prevents Utilities to be Customer Centric

From a utility’s perspective, there are significant benefits from increased customer engagement as this is the strongest protection against the commoditization of their services. However, utilities need to address some challenges before they can develop a successful customer experience program. For one, the data set within the utility customer information systems (CIS) regarding each customer is fairly limited. Also, customer engagement is typically around a specific transaction, for example, to learn if it makes financial sense to shift to rooftop solar generation. There are many competing players who are simultaneously engaging with the customer on these topics. Finally, in many cases, the data and insights delivered to the customer result in reduced consumption for the utility which makes it difficult to justify the investment. The Infosys Digital Outlook Report –Utilities (2018) has interesting insights in this regard:

  • 79% of utilities believed they were customer-centric, but only 7% of customers shared that perspective
  • 54% of the utilities surveyed informed that they would be investing in customer analytics and that this would have ‘the most positive impact on their organization within the next three years’

Based on the above data, this represents a significant improvement opportunity for utilities and they are looking to invest in customer experience programs. Here are three key questions that utilities need to address to build a successful program:

What are the Opportunity Areas for Sustained Customer Engagement?

Streamlining customer experience is a very important goal for utilities. Looking at the top reasons for customers to contact a utility and using the Eliminate-Automate-Streamline methods to enable these transactions is fundamental to any customer experience program.

Going beyond streamlining these transactions, utilities will need to focus on solutions that improve customer engagement. Solutions will need to target real needs at the intersection of benefits to both consumer and the utility. Blindly imitating “best practices” from high-touch industries such as retail or financial services will not deliver results. Here are some areas of opportunity for ongoing engagement,

Demand management: Utilities should make it easier for customers to understand their usage patterns, the choices they have to lower their consumption and their utility bill. This will help the utility to meet peak load management targets and energy efficiency goals. Beyond this obvious use case, there is an opportunity for developing new products and services in partnership with innovative product/service companies and emerge as an ‘energy solution provider’ with new sources of revenue.

Green energy: Creating consumer awareness about their energy sources and giving them an option to control the proportion of green energy in their usage mix. Engaging in a broader conversation with a vocal and conscious customer will help build a positive image for utilities. It presents opportunities to offer new services such as EV charging stations and promote greener choices for transportation.

What Data Sources are Critical in Utilities to Deliver Customer Experience/Analytics Programs?

A global research and advisory firm predicts that by 2019, 75 percent of analytics solutions will incorporate ten or more data sources from second-party partners or third-party providers. This is very relevant for utilities given the limitation of the data in the CIS. Rather than ask– “What insights can I gather from the data I have about my customers?” Utilities should ask– “What meaningful insights will benefit my customer as well as the utility?”. Once they answer this question, the next one should be, “Where will I find the data to derive those insights?”.

Enterprises are setting up data marketplaces that help them seamlessly access data/information/ models from data syndicators, government/NGOs, and non-native data service firms through the data lifecycle. Utilities generate significant data through the millions of smart meters and IoT devices across their network. This also represents a monetization opportunity for utilities after they establish robust mechanisms for data privacy and security.

What communication channels should utilities utilize?

Digital channels have great potential to reach customers with personalized messaging, enable bi-directional conversations and at a fraction of the cost of traditional channels. Digital channels have expanded from a website with basic transactional information and e-mails to a whole host of touch-points that include presence in social media, messaging, chats etc. Social listening is an opportunity to get a pulse of customer sentiment and incorporate their feedback into the product/service/customer experience strategy.

However, digital is not the only channel utilities should be focused on. The customer should have the choice, control, and convenience on how they engage with the utility. Utilities should blend in-person community involvement with online interactions to amplify the impact they are having in the local community. As the nature of the service and the choice gets more complex, there is no substitute to voice conversations with expert customer service agents. In fact, it is likely that calls will get longer and need a higher level of expertise in the future. As a result, utilities should look to ‘Shift-Left’ as many routine conversations (as practical) to digital channels or automation and re-train their agents to be able to deal with complex queries.

Transforming customer experience is a multi-year journey. Traditional approaches to customer experience will need to be re-visited to take advantage of technology advances and customer preferences.

New digital and analytical capabilities in utilities will need to be developed to address customers’ needs and offer energy solutions. This will be an exciting and rewarding journey for utilities if they have the right vision to march forward, and the leadership and partners to take them there.