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Digital Innovation in Customer Service and the Contact Center

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Mark Wilkinson's picture
SVP Products Ibex Digital

Helping utilities and their customer experience teams transform customer journeys,  decode customer insights  and enhance revenues for nearly 15 years.  At Ibex, I lead the teams delivering...

  • Member since 2019
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  • Sep 27, 2022

This item is part of the Enhancing the Digital Utility - September 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

COVID changed customer service and support, probably permanently.  Ask anyone responsible for customer engagement and service across the industry. Contact Center and Customer Operations leaders transitioned almost overnight to remote work environments, massive changes to how customers want to interact and an accelerated shift to digital service, dealt with the Great Resignation, and now struggle with recruiting and retaining talent as the economy shifts again to return (in some places) to the office.

As a result of the increased need for up to the minute data and analysis, changing customer expectations and proliferation of digital and remote delivery channels, contact centers must mine for new tools to ensure quality, consistency, and performance as operations evolve. According  to Gartner, 64% of customer service and support leaders will shift their priorities in 2022.

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I spoke to colleagues in the Business Process Outsourcer industry to capture the major trends for Customer Operations and how utilities can leverage new tools and technology to accelerate their digital transformation projects.

Integrated CX in the cloud

“It’s simply no longer possible to expect agents to deliver a world class customer experience if they have to open four to six different windows and copy/paste between tools to understand and support a customer inquiry. Customer don’t like it and agents don’t have to put up with it, so the industry has to consolidate and integrate CX technologies for a simpler path to customer service.”  Bob McCallister, Vice President, Ibex Connect.

Contact centers that expect their support teams to manage across disconnected tools and technologies to assess customer issues, manage interactions, respond to questions, and resolve issues will struggle to optimize performance and scale to meet increasing customer expectations without consolidating technology and processes more effectively.

Now, delivering exceptional CX relies on a fully integrated solution that connects the entire customer journey and streamlines internal processes and workflows. To stay competitive and relevant, more enterprises are investing in their CX platforms. Based on Gartner’s forecast, spending on contact center solutions will reach $15.2 billion in 2023. 

Utilities that historically faced expensive and time-consuming projects related to legacy premise-based platforms for ERP, CRM, and Service Desk functions can find a wealth of options and support services for translating those operations to more nimble platforms in the cloud.    Most utilities have too much time, infrastructure and data ever to migrate fully from their tech stacks.  However, new technology and SaaS solutions make it possible to maintain the horsepower of SAP and Oracle applications through an abstraction layer that maintains data and operational integrity and offers more flexibility and quick adaptation for the digital customer experience.  These tools accelerate migrating core operational functions to the cloud, to a browser and to mobile applications for customers to engage in their increasingly digital channels of choice more easily.

What's more, enhancing these capabilities books your KPI performance: migrating to the cloud can improve call answer rates by 5%, while the Average Speed of Answer (ASA) drops by as much as 50%.  So, many of these projects can find value and budget by offsetting key operational costs, as well.

Conversational AI

Chatbots have been enormously influential in key industries for customer engagement and self-service.  Retail, Insurance, Telecom, and Financial Services all have made major investments and deployments of Chatbots to their digital experiences to great endorsement of their customers.  Utilities have been slow to adopt this technology for customer service and support, but the time for the next evolution is upon us.  It’s time to consider conversational AI.   The natural evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) in the contact center is the adoption of conversational agents — intelligent bots capable of taking care of a whole lot more than just the low-hanging fruit.

Bots powered by conversational AI far surpass the original incarnations of bots with rules based call and response parameters.  Today, chatbots use natural language processing and machine learning to deepen their understanding of customers’ needs. As they learn from each interaction, they’re able to take on more complex tasks over time.

Contact centers will use conversational AI to support an increasing number of interactions from customer support to lead nurture to employee training and beyond. The evolution of artificial agents will also incorporate speech recognition technology that allows companies to make good on the promise of a truly omnichannel experience supported by AI.

Prescriptive analytics

Some contact centers are already using predictive analytics to inform their CX strategy. The technology analyzes data about past behaviors and events to predict future outcomes. For example, companies may use it to predict customer preferences based on their past browsing and purchasing behavior. Retailers and marketplaces use data on past purchases and demographic details to recommend new products and services or inform content to capture customer engagement.

Utilities could leverage deep data not simply about a single customer’s energy use and digital behaviors, but data across the entire customer base to chart outreach and engagement that support optimal outcomes.  Data models could help identify customers most likely to enroll in demand response or shop for Electric Vehicles, or require payment assistant programs, then find look alike audiences to promote optimal engagement for similar goals.

Prescriptive analytics is the next step after predictive analytics. It’s an emerging form of AI that uses the results of predictive AI to drive desired outcomes. In the near future, contact centers will put prescriptive analytics to work to anticipate users’ needs and behaviors and automatically shape their experience in a way that improves outcomes for both the customer and the business.  It could come in the form of optimal call routing and IVR design or identifying patters to promote text or email outreach to customers with self-service links that anticipate a need before a call to customer service.  Utilities should keep an eye on innovation in prescriptive analytics tools in other industries to build a playbook for their own customer service roadmap.

Self-serve everything

According to a recent report from Microsoft, 86 percent of customers expect a self-service option and two-thirds try self-service first before contacting a live agent.   I suspect that in the post-COVID world, those expectations have become even more digitally focused.  Utilities have done a good job of migrating energy start, stop and transfer services to digital enrollment, but customers continue to be critical of the outdated features on most utility websites.

Dependence on legacy platforms has played a role in the slow evolution of customer self-service functions to the web, but with the advent of so many SaaS tools and solutions, Utilities can accelerate their digital transformation strategy.   Those cloud systems act like a broker between the customer experience layer on a website or a mobile app and the needs of the legacy CRM, ERP and infrastructure systems that manage operations.  My colleague Chad Rycenga, EVP of Product at ibex Digital, describes it this way:

“Think of it as the reemergence of middleware, but this time as a handshake between SAP or Oracle systems and the implicit expectations of customers’ digital experience. These applications and next-generation interfaces broker information between the legacy platforms and how the customer wants to engage online. Solutions must abstract the rigid data requirements and frameworks with more flexibility to converse with a customer intuitively, then hand back the right data in the right framework to the legacy platform for the heavy lifting.” 

With a little support and new tools, Utilities can accelerate self-service features on their website and mobile applications, reduce unwarranted calls to the contact center, and increase CSAT for an increasingly digitally astute customer base.

The future of the contact center

As always, customers’ evolving expectations and needs — for omnichannel, self-serve, digital, and beyond — are driving the evolution of the contact center. Given the complexity of the changes underway and their rapid acceleration due to the pandemic, it’s safe to say the future of the contact center will look a lot different than it does today.  Utilities can benefit immediately from new tools and technology prove in other industries to support the evolution and innovation of their own customer operations centers to keep pace with those rapidly accelerating customer expectations.

Christina Corcoran's picture
Christina Corcoran on Sep 27, 2022

Great insights Mark!  I remember working for PPL Solutions 10 years ago and going into the call center and the processes the agents had to go thru just to satisfy a customer's question or request and then the added time to document everything was crazy.  Streamlining and digitizing will help the agents perform their jobs better and make unhappy customers, at least a little happier and satisfied, by taking care of the issue at hand quicker and more efficiently or in a lot of cases, with self-serve options that are not the annoyance of the old IVR systems. 

Vanessa Edmonds's picture
Vanessa Edmonds on Oct 4, 2022

Great article. We have to start thinking of employees, including customer service agents, as customers and make CX as easy as possible for them. It's the only way to overcome the mounting challenges you discuss.

Mark Wilkinson's picture
Mark Wilkinson on Oct 6, 2022

Agreed.  The customer service agents are the people who moderate the direct relationship between utilities and their customers, so leveraging tech, training, and support to make the CSR's job and life easier always benefits the customer experience.

Mark Wilkinson's picture
Thank Mark for the Post!
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