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How Will the Covid-19 Crisis Change Customer Care at Utilities?

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Rakesh  Sharma's picture
Journalist Freelance Journalist

I am a New York-based freelance journalist interested in energy markets. I write about energy policy, trading markets, and energy management topics. You can see more of my writing...

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While it may seem a temporary state of affairs, the Covid-19 crisis is expected to result in significant and lasting changes to operations at utilities. Those changes are most significant in customer care. This is primarily because recent innovations have made customer care the business operation most amenable to reconfiguration. 

For example, unlike other field workers, customer care professionals can easily work from home. Virtual agents powered by reams of data are already taking over from humans to handle basic queries. Artificial intelligence and data crunching techniques can be employed to derive wisdom and insights about usage and customer service patterns during and before crises. And the list goes on. 

It would be tempting to presume that entire call centers can be automated using technology. But that may not turn out to be good customer service. A recent Accenture survey found that 57% of customers for a business prefer live interaction with a support executive “wanting an opportunity to ask, explain, reason or negotiate with customer service.” Fifty eight percent of respondents to the same survey said they’d prefer to solve urgent issues by calling for support rather than use other channels. 

Here are two ways in which the current crisis may remake customer care operations at utilities.  

Use of Artificial Intelligence

The use of artificial intelligence in data analytics and operations management at utilities is already well-known. But its use in customer service is also becoming increasingly common in customer care. 

According to research firm Gartner, 25 percent of customer service operations in the future will use virtual customer assistants by 2020. For utilities, virtual agents can help drive down customer service costs by automating the servicing of customers for basic queries and retrieval of information related to their energy use. Complex queries that involve human interaction can be solved by a team in the backend. For example, virtual agents can be used to market campaigns for energy efficiency in which the customer signs up for energy alerts through their email. Such bots can also be used to slice and dice information and present it to customers. Human agents can take over when the said customer needs actions associated with that information. 

A possible example of this mode of operation is Julia, Florida Power & Light’s customer service representative. But the current crisis highlights the need to provide such automated representatives with greater capabilities such as answering questions related to policies and energy usage, as opposed to simple redirection capabilities. 

Social Media Use  
Can social media channels replace traditional customer service channels? Some say yes. But that may not be an ideal solution for utilities that service millions of customers. But social media can play an important role in disseminating critical information blasts to thousands of stakeholders at the same time. At the same time, Facebook pages can also be equipped with custom virtual agents to serve as additional support mechanisms during times of crisis. A cursory glance through social media channels for electric utilities during the current crisis shows that the pages have become more active with customer complaints and queries.

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