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Why Utilities should stop throwing money to push user adoption portals instead enable simple and easy to deploy digital interactions

image credit: © Doberman84 | Dreamstime.com

Problem statement: Customer experience tools are often too complex and don’t alleviate cumbersome processes

In today's world, where consumer expectations are driven through the use of tools such as Alexa, Amazon and Uber, customers are expecting more from their utilities. They expect flawless, on demand, experience to address their utility needs such as scheduling, confirming service appointments, accessing their bill and disputing a bill.  And at times, an experience that’s not burdened with having to download yet another APP just to interact with the utility.  The trend of late has been utilities spending millions of $s on customer experience applications which attempt to practically solve world hunger, but the user adoption rate is very low after the utility has made a rather sizable investment in purchasing and deploying these heavy and sometimes over complicated applications. I am one of the end customers trying to navigate through a complex maze of customer portal of my electric utility. It took me 10 mins to find how to change my Autopay and imagine the plight of non-tech savvy users if I am a tech savvy user who is having trouble.

Challenge 1: People live crazy hectic lives

Utility customers are real people with kids who have schoolwork and sports, they have jobs and families to grocery shop and cook for leaving little time during the day to engage with the utility to do things like report a high bill or make an appointment for a safety check.   The typical customer only interacts with a utility intermittently, sometimes not at all for a year or two and typically only when there is a problem. Adding to the complication of interacting with utilities, how many customers actually remember their username/password or know where they stored it when they set up their profile on a utility website.  In most recent years utilities have rushed to provide smartphone APPs to improve customer experiences, but the truth is most customers won’t even bother to ever download one and if they do they might even delete it later on when they go to clean up their phone APPs and realize they rarely, if ever, use it. 

Challenge 2: Short Attention spans

Everyone knows that most people these days have short attention spans and those attention spans are only getting shorter in this digital immediate gratification world we all live in. Customers want to digest information that serves their immediate needs and move on. To keep customers happy utilities, need to focus on seamless workflow processes.  A lot of customer service apps out in the marketplace today appear to be trying to solve all the world's problems at one time which unnecessarily over complicates the customer service experience and in turn makes getting to the most commonly used service interaction diluted and hard to access. The majority of people don’t want to be barraged with a million different ways to dissect their usage or the many rate plans a utility offer.  A more efficient way to provide this information is by leveraging AI tools to analyze a customer’s usage simply push them recommendations.   This in turn would allow customer experience tools to be refocused on helping customers solve problems.  

Challenge 3: People expect efficient user-friendly tools

A customer experience factor where there is a high risk of customer satisfaction is high bill concerns.  The reporting of this issue needs to be user friendly and streamlined and the remedy of the situation needs to be almost immediate to keep the customer engagement experience high.  There is a new world coming which will displace all these customer service centers and enable utilities to lower their cost on employee overhead and at the same time provide even higher touch customer service experiences for their utility customers, but one must go about this in a purposeful effective manner that doesn’t cost rate-payers an arm and a leg to deploy. The key is that the solution be affordable, so not to erase any efficiency cost savings.

Solution: How Do Utilities Navigate This Transformation?

When investing in a customer experience solution it’s important to think about your end goals and if the solution needs to seamlessly tie multiple application processes together such as your Customer Information, Asset Management and Field Service Management.  Additionally, instead of trying to solve everything with a customer experience application, focus your customer service portals on where you will get the biggest bang for your buck.  Ensure that it is heavily enabled with seamless high touch customer workflows. For example, if a utility customer has an upcoming appointment booked, consider solutions enabled to send them a reminder and then on the day of service provide them a link w/ live crew updates when the crew is enroute, similar to Uber where they can track the location of the technician on a map. 

Focus on ways to effectively manage high risk customer experience situations such as power outages or potential gas leaks.  Innovative tools exist that provide social listening engines which can pick up Tweets from a customer support handle where the customer takes a picture of the leak and tweets it and the system automatically GEOcodes the location which directs field technicians to the exact location, saving both the customer and utility valuable time.

Most customers would prefer to tell the utility how they would like to interact with them, so utilities should have the option to enroll their customers in their preferred type of communication when their account is set up and continue to move more and more of their key processes to be high touch with the end goal of enriching the customer's experiences. Think of today’s airline industry where you book a ticket and identify your preferred notification method for updates on the trip. The airline is now able to communicate with you when there has been a change or simply remind you of the upcoming trip so you can check in to avoid lines at the airport. They will then alert you of changes such as a new flight time or gate change.  The experience enriches the customer's life by avoiding going to the wrong gate or rushing to get a pre-flight meal when their flight is delayed, and they could have taken their time.  Features like this leave a customer with a pleasant experience while addressing their immediate needs and utilities can do the same thing.

We need to first Imagine a world where utilities offer simple to use high touch customer service engagement models that you see in leading companies like Amazon and Uber. Imagine a world where a customer reporting a high bill can simply take a picture of the meter with their smartphone enabling the utility to read the picture Geocode and timestamp. All while eliminating the need to roll a utility truck for a meter reread where the customer waits unnecessarily on resolution of their reported problem.  Tools like this do exist today, it’s just a matter of focusing on where to invest to make the biggest impact with your customers and leverage affordable solutions that won’t erase any efficiency cost savings.

We are starting to see examples of this progression.

California Water Services Modernize Field Operations and Connect with 2M+ Customers. The customer portal allows their customers to receive real-time updates about their service appointments. Customers who opt-in receive status updates of a service request receive automatic email or text notifications based on their preferences, as a reminder prior to the appointment, when the field representative is en-route, if there are any unexpected delays or changes, and when the representative has arrived at the location. All of these capabilities, including compliance reporting and analytics, were delivered via the cloud to any mobile device in real-time, online or offline.

The Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia. The Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia, known as The Gas Authority, is committed to helping its Members provide safe, clean, reliable, low cost natural gas service to their customers and communities.  This mission led The Gas Authority to offer a new service to help their Members grow their customer base by making it easier for customers to use natural gas in their homes and businesses. NGC wanted to make this purchasing process as seamless as possible by offering a one-stop shopping experience with a fully integrated and automated customer-facing website.   Utility companies are just beginning to see the benefits of investing in customer experience. Simplifying communication and finding convenient digital solutions can not only help increase customer satisfaction but also lower internal costs and accelerate growth.

Kimberley Herrala's picture

Thank Kimberley for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 29, 2020 12:26 pm GMT

Challenge 3: People expect efficient user-friendly tools

This is so important-- I'm someone who loves to look at my monthly utility data to see trends, how I can affect it, etc., but even I'll get frustrated with clunky or non-user-friendly tools. Having so much data available but not displayed in intuitive and useful ways is so frustrating, so you can't expect customers to really utilize that if you don't tailor it for them. And specifically tailor it to the tools-- I should see a different looking dashboard on computer vs. mobile browser vs. app. Great example of meeting the customer where they are being the best way to go.

Kimberley-- do you have any examples of a utility who's mobile app is the best in this regard? This seems to be my white whale and I'd love to see an example of a utility who is doing it right!

Kimberley Herrala's picture
Kimberley Herrala on Jun 1, 2020 2:44 pm GMT

Matt, I always advise our KloudGin engineering team to focus on the 80/20 rule otherwise you will end up building something that nobody will use. Having said that 80% of the folks are not people who will take the time to slice and dice usage data, they just want quick answers.  While it’s important to offer some simple analytics and trend data for the 20% that may care to get into the weeds of their bill, keeping things even more simple for the majority that won’t care to analyze their usage is of more importance. Utilities should consider offering AI tools where customers can instead ask questions like “What’s my monthly peak usage? What time period makes up the majority of my bill?”. Or even better, just push that kind information to them if they enroll in SMS or email usage alerts.  In fact, most of our customers seem to be moving towards just pushing out information and providing links for a utility customer to pop into their customer engagement portals which allow them to do things like view data and even book appointments. I particularly like the way Cal Water is leveraging our tools to provide high touch experiences for their customers (full disclosure they use KloudGin across multiple applications by connecting CIS, Asset Management, GIS, Crews, Contractors and Equipment). This weblike engagement model is also increasingly being used across other verticals KloudGin works with like Hawaiian Telcom and several others.

Eric Van Orden's picture
Eric Van Orden on Jun 4, 2020 6:43 pm GMT

Great point. "Friction" is commonly talked about in Silicon Valley for software, apps, etc. But, the term isn't as common for the energy world. Yet, it should be. In many cases, the energy industry has a lot of physical assets plus an increasing about of digital assets. It seems that the installation/set-up process needs to be as "frictionless" and user-friendly, as well as the actual use of the tool/solution.  
 

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on May 29, 2020 3:33 pm GMT

"The typical customer only interacts with a utility intermittently, sometimes not at all for a year or two and typically only when there is a problem. Adding to the complication of interacting with utilities, how many customers actually remember their username/password or know where they stored it when they set up their profile on a utility website."

Exactly. If the problem is serious enough, people will take the neccessary time to figure out nebulous apps, reset passwords, wait on hold, etc. But if the'yre just seeking to save a couple bucks, check their usage data, or look into a new incentive program, any complications may force them to throw in the towel. And who could blame them? Are any of those things worth a few hours of someone's time? 

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Jun 1, 2020 5:57 pm GMT

Good piece. The challenges stem from a few areas. First, delivering power is a complex process with a lot of moving, interconnected parts. Systems have been built to track how well the parts functions. Customers do not care about what is happening in the utility, only how it impact them. Also, the legacy systems were build before modern technology, like cloud, mobile, and containers. It is not easy to put a simple interface onto an older, complex systems. Finally sometimes, the design team focuses more on how the new system will help them than on how it benefits the consumer.

As noted in the piece, utilities need to realize that customers nowadays demand simple, quick access to information.  They need to look beyond themselves when building a new system or enhancing an old one. They also need to start with what the customer would like ideally rather than what they have now and add onto it.  New easy to user interface are possible but only when the utility changes its outlook from itself to its customers. 

Susan Brissette's picture
Susan Brissette on Jun 1, 2020 7:28 pm GMT

Thought provoking article. I liked your example about how when we fly, we are now notified of gate changes, etc and when we call for an Uber we can see the driver coming and we get data about our driver. I can see the applicability for utilities to better communicate with customers, and the benefit customers can get from this. I wonder though if the competitive model of ride share/taxi and of airlines drives a different investment reality for companies wanting to attract and retain customers, or increase customers' usage of their services. Aside from diminishing the 'hassle factor' for utility clients, how should utilities consider the 'benefits' in terms of increased revenues or decreased costs, when many enjoy a captive target market? I believe better customer interface ultimately results in lower costs, but I don't have the data to back up my intuition. Thoughts welcome! Regards, Susan 

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