This special interest group covers mobile technologies and approaches that are helping utilities do business today. 

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Utilities struggle to provide customers a comprehensive mobile app experience to their own peril.

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Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 722 items added with 352,533 views
  • Aug 18, 2022
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Well, it happened, millennials have officially taken the crown from baby boomers as the largest living adult population in the U.S. This was theorized in 2019 but confirmed after the 2020 census results came through.

What does this have to do with utilities? It has to do with utilities as much as it has to do with any business or industry to values a strong customer experience. Millennials are the first digital native generation, which means we grew up on the computers. Smartphones aren't some new technology to us, they've become as integral to daily life as a radio, television set, telephone, or newspaper for generations past. This means from this point forward, strong customer experience will mean a focus on what can be delivered through the smartphone and accompanying apps.

This should come as a wake up call to utilities. While the electric industry has put all of its chips behind a renewable energy transition and upgraded infrastructure, equal attention needs to be placed in building a better, more comprehensive customer experience through the smartphone through apps and mobile websites. The days of even just email communication, or paper mailers, or phone calls should be seen as firmly in the past. Of course, not all customers are millennials, but utilities need to be planning to eventually decommission those forms of customer engagement in the name of the smartphone.

Utilities haven't been great at this. A JD Power report from earlier this year showed that one-third of power utilities surveyed do not have a smartphone app, despite the evidence that smartphone apps have "consistently outperformed other customer engagement channels." Not only that, but the digital experience for customers within the electric utility has fallen in customer rating while almost every other industry has surged in this area.

The 2022 JD Power study showed little improvement from the same study the year before, in which utilities were found to struggle on providing a sound digital and mobile experience for customers, with nearly half saying they were unable to navigate their utility's website.

It's becoming increasingly clear that business sustainability and customer satisfaction (often tied in other industries but maybe less so in the electric utility's monopolistic structure) are linked to how businesses (utilities) deliver in the digital and mobile realm. Utility tech managers are likely tied to issues such as cybersecurity and smart metering, but it would do utilities well to put some emphasis on the customer experience.

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Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Sep 14, 2022

The author makes an excellent point that utilities are missing the boat with the current dominant generation being a "digital / mobile first" consumer group.  My experience with digital APPs for utilities is that one of the glaring weak spots in their deployment in is payments processing.  

Smartphones today are full of APPs that position themselves to be all things to all people for paying bills. Google Pay / Google Wallet is a readily understood example, and there are many APPs out there that have similar capabilities.

Utilities that require customers to find a desktop and set up a link from the account to the customer's bank checking account are missing the boat and creating a security headaches for customers.  One of the reasons no one in their right mind uses an ATM card for retail transactions is the pervasive threat of hacking which can drain a customer's bank account in seconds.  Banks have been notoriously difficult in helping customers recover the funds. 

Why would anyone today give a business direct access to their checking account other than the bank's own mortgage dept? The cases to read are breaches of retail giants like Target and Home Depot.  Target was taken for 40 million debit and credit cards. Home Depot was hacked for 50 million debit and credit cards and paid a whopping $19M to settle class action lawsuits over the breach,

By comparison, I use smartphone APPs to pay securely for my airline tickets and many other business and personal transactions. These APPs encrypt the transactions and pull the payments from a credit card, with a one-time code, which is far more likely to be protected relative to fraudulent transactions. 

Utilities have an "old school" mentality of cash on the barrelhead, e.g., direct access to checking accounts, which is huge impediment to adoption of seamless payment APPs on smartphones for people to pay their bills. Given the security issues associated with ATM cards, and the history of retail hacking incidents, this is a losing proposition.

In 2017 and 2018, hackers compromised systems running the Click2Gov self-service bill-payment portal in dozens of cities across the United States, a feat that compromised 300,000 payment cards and generated nearly $2 million of revenue dumping tens of thousands of records onto the Dark Web. No utility is immune from these threats which is why APPs with end-to-end encryption for the payment processes on Smartphones are the way to go. With these APPs the utility does not have either a credit card or ATM card on file that can be stolen.

By comparison, the telecommunications industry, including cell phone providers, cable TV, etc., are happy to set up autopay and other payment options via their smartphone APPs that have cybersecurity built in.

The electric and gas utilities that don't get it are likely to literally pay for their conservative mentality with less customer engagement for the millennial generation as well as others.  Branding has balance sheet value, and a brand that is stuck in a mid-20th century mainframe mentality will be able to measure the loss of being left behind.

 

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 14, 2022

Well said, Dan. Clearly this is a point of major frustration for you!

I'll agree with everything you said, and then highlight how even if I wanted to use credit card rather than direct bank deposit at my utility that I'm still hit with a  convenience charge where, once again, none of those other typical bills (cell phone, cable, etc.) saddle me with the same

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