This special interest group is where customer care professionals share tactics on how utilities are improving interactions with their customers. 

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From Linear to Love: A New Era of Utility Customer Service

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Chona Emerson's picture
Director, Solution Management Oracle Utilities

Chona Emerson is Director of Solution Strategy for Oracle’s Utilities Global Business Unit, with focus on customer operations solution management. Chona has 20 years of experience working with...

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2019-05 - Customer Care, click here for more

If the utility industry had a Facebook page, they would likely classify their relationship with customers as “it’s complicated.” Energy distribution is no longer a linear equation where a customer uses a resource and then is billed for it. With the emergence of solar, batteries and electric vehicles, customers are increasingly becoming energy producers themselves and are looking for more information regarding their overall usage and bill and how to lessen the impact of both. And they expect all this with higher levels of customer service and personalization.

The growth of these renewables, coupled with the data explosion from meters and other devices, is requiring utilities to rethink everything from their business model to billing structure to meet the demands of this new utility economy.

Many utilities are responding to these changes by expanding their communication channels, digitizing basic services, creating more self-service options, and offering new products and services tailored to the needs of different customer segments. While others are going one step further and applying the latest innovations in analytics, user-experience design and machine learning to build deeper engagement with their customers by:

Improving the Service Experience

It’s an undisputed fact that customers generate a large number of repetitive customer service inquiries mostly related to bills and payments. This has only been exacerbated with the emergence of new distributed energy resources such as solar, that often complicate billing. By applying machine learning and artificial-intelligence to existing customer information systems, utilities have the power to engage customers at scale to improve both relationships and outcomes.

For example, by understanding customers’ behavior patterns while searching their website, a utility can apply machine learning to serve up the “next best screen” that may have the intel the consumer is seeking. Couple that with intelligent chatbots, as one big utility is currently doing, and customers can get answers in real time.

Taking it one step further, why require the customer to type when they can simply talk? Utilities are increasingly looking at how they can make digital voice assistants an effective customer experience channel. By integrating billing and account management features with deep insights, utilities can quickly get customers the information and advice they are seeking, while dramatically increasing satisfaction and reducing expensive call center interactions.

Engaging in Real-Time

As the old G.I. Joe adage goes, “Knowing is half the battle.” Using machine learning coupled with AMI data, utilities are able to increasingly disaggregate exactly what energy-intensive devices a household is using and when. Be being able to understand large appliance usage and combine that intelligence with behavioral insights, utilities can significantly boost their customer engagement capabilities by embedding highly personalized information into their customer touchpoints. 

For instance, new customer engagement technologies can proactively deliver personalized alerts when a customer’s bill is running high mid-month. This both eliminates questions on billing and also gives the customer an opportunity to adjust their usage to keep their bill lower. Digging deeper using machine learning and disaggregation technology, the alert may note that a customer is charging their electric vehicle at a time where rates are at their peak and suggest a more economical hour to power up. 

Using data-driven customer experiences to automate these insights and get them in hands of customers quickly – via phone, text, email, etc. - can have an immediate impact on customer service costs while showing the customer that their utility truly understands and is invested in them.

Offering More Adaptable Billing

Many utilities customer information systems (CIS) are still stuck in the “linear equation” mentality. But the new utility world order demands a different level of adaptability. For example, more utilities are moving to Time of Use (TOU) rates. Coupled with the engagement mechanisms noted above, TOU rates can be a powerful proposition to drive customer behaviors that result in a lower bill, as well as a healthier energy grid.

Customer information systems must allow for these dynamic pricing structures, as well as new considerations, such as renewables. For instance, at times of peak demand, utilities may be looking to buy energy back from customers who have excess capacity in something such as their electric vehicle battery. Jump forward a few years and we may even begin to see more “energy as a service” scenarios where customers subscribe to a certain outcome at a set price per month – just like they do with a Netflix or Spotify. Billing systems have to be ready to handle the changes that are inevitably coming their way while delivering a seamless customer experience.

In the new utility economy, the customer is transitioning from a billable account to a participant in the utility business model. However, antiquated systems simply don’t allow utilities the flexibility and intelligence they need in this customer-centric future. By embracing better service, engagement and modern billing technologies, utilities can move their customer relationships from linear to love.

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