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What does Omni-Channel mean for Utilities? Hint - it's not always about digital transformation.

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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...

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  • Aug 26, 2020
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We hear a lot of confusion from our utility clients and partners about the need to be "omni-channel" in their customer outreach.  Despite plentiful and costly advice from consultants, few partners have confidence delivering on those omni-channel goals.

So, we begin with an omni-channel end in mind, but informed more progressively by starting small and expanding relentlessly.  Getting to an omni-channel approach to digital communication and engagement should NOT require that utilities fully transform their digital experience, and it doesn't necessarily mean going to bid on CRM, CMS and MAS technology.  Utilities that already have those tools may have a step ahead in getting to their omni-channel goals, but most of us know that technology just as easily becomes a bottleneck instead of an enabler for digital outreach programs.  Avoid the obstacles entirely by starting new and small and focus on a basic plan.

The end goal of any communication plan should always be to ensure customers can easily find what they need, when they need it, however they choose to connect with your operations.  Customers just want to connect conveniently in their "channel of choice," which just means that utilities have to provide useful information in the channels were customers most often engage.  Ultimately, that's all that omni-channel was ever intended to mean, but the simple explanation isn't as cool as a new buzz phrase for marketing types.

We advocate a simple approach, beginning with an assessment of how your customers already interact with your operations.  Identify the key channels for customer outreach: direct mail, bill inserts, email, customer service, and the website usually covers 90%+ of typical customer connections.  Examine the best performing programs, most clickable emails, most shared social posts, and most common calls or clicks from the website.  These breadcrumbs help you to know the most likely "channels of choice" for your customers.

Once you establish that communication journey map, being omni-channel just means that as you incorporate new messages, alerts or special offers to your customer outreach, support the message in those channels: online, in the call center, on apps, and in print.  We always ask ourselves, could a customer reading this email click on a link to get to information about the topic on our website?  If they call customer service, will the CSR team have the information available to answer customer questions on the topic?  If not, correcting those gaps makes the new message omni-channel!  

Don't buy the hype about getting omni-channel.  Our experience suggests that utilities already have all the tools needed to begin incorporating customer outreach across their communication channels.  Don't get caught up in massive projects that implode under their own gravity.  Start small, expand relentlessly, and your customers will appreciate your efforts.  Just ask them.  We're sure they will tell you what they think.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 26, 2020

We advocate a simple approach, beginning with an assessment of how your customers already interact with your operations. 

Does that risk leaving potential solutions on the table, though? When I look at my daily energy use from my utility, it's on the online platform because that's the place it's located. I'd much prefer an email with a graphic or even an app with a push notification so I could look that way, but those aren't options so wouldn't my utility then end up thinking I'm not interested in those channels? 

Mark Wilkinson's picture
Mark Wilkinson on Aug 26, 2020

Matt - great point.  Energy use details, efficiency suggestions, new rebate programs, and the like should be among the top priorities for utilites to promote across multiple channels.  We just advocate starting small to avoid operational obstacles to even getting started. 

For example, its a fairly simple step to build an email campaign to remind customers about getting the latest energy use data, and sending a link in the email for a quick-click to the data in a porta.  Utilities could start with one channel, gradually adding new channels like a summary email or a mobile app tab, and within a few months have feedback across the entire customer communication journey about where customers most often and most enthusiastically engage.

The alternative, which often flummoxes projects in general, is to build to too many specifications all at once.  And, we know that the bigger the project gets, the tougher it is to get approvals, budgets, and progress.  A simple communcation strategy for incremental roll out makes steady progress and delivers useful outreach to customers.  And, the early success and customer feedback often makes it easier for a modest program to expand to a bigger project, which just accelerates the outcomes utilities set as goals in the first place.

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Aug 31, 2020

Mark - very good points, just getting the customer to engage will improve utilities greatly.  Historically monopoly suppliers tend to forget the consumers.  With the desire for a lower carbon future, getting the consumer engaged will lead to much lower infrastructure development needs.  

Mark Wilkinson's picture
Mark Wilkinson on Aug 31, 2020

Gary - agreed, and thanks.  We think that digitally engaged customers will be far more disposed to online bill pay, ask questions via email and chat, enroll in special programs, and appreciate low cost notifications like email or SMS for outages and other communications.  Utilities find that digitally engaged customers report higher CSAT, call the centers less often, use smart phone apps, and other low cost, high-yield connections.  Utilities can repurpose those resources and budgets to next level channels for more efficiency. It's a great way to spin the flywheel on digital transformation programs across the customer lifecycle.  Thanks for your comments.

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