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3 Steps Utilities Can Take to Make Their “Get-to-Zero” Programs a Success

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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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  • Feb 23, 2022

This item is part of the Business Side of Running a Utility in 2022 - February 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Utilities are on a mission to achieve two goals that seem contradictory: to increase customer satisfaction while decreasing the number of calls that arrive at their call centers. This drive to “get-to-zero” when it comes to customer calls is understandable, given the financial pressures facing utilities. In the time of Covid, utilities did the right thing and did not cut off customers who failed to pay their bills. But, as a result, utilities are now sitting on an estimated $32 billion in unpaid bills.

So, utilities are searching for new ways to reduce costs and driving down customer calls is near the top of the list. However, Get to Zero programs often result in the opposite of their goals, so utilities should consider the risks. Done against customer expectations, Get to Zero programs have a risk of alienating customers and increasing customer “rage metrics” that produce even more calls to customer service.  All businesses, including utilities, are under pressure to raise the bar and deliver a world-class customer experience that rivals the likes of Apple and Amazon, so it’s a good idea to have a strong playbook for GTZ that resolves those risks.

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We recommend these three tips utilities can implement to make their get-to-zero programs a success, cut costs, and actually improve that all-important customer satisfaction score.

1: Map the value stream of calls

Value stream mapping is a way that utilities can better understand the elements of every successful customer call and intelligently make improvements that will further boost the customer experience. Say your average customer call is 10 minutes. Value stream mapping can help you determine how much of that 10 minutes is productive and how much value is gained from it.

Essentially, what you’re doing is finding inefficiencies in the handle time of your customer interactions and building an analysis of where there are opportunities to cut those portions of calls that don’t provide a return on investment.

For example, your customer service representatives might be investing 2 minutes at the end of every call explaining this month’s bill and when payment is due. If those 2 minutes prevent a repeat call and get the customer to pay on time, that’s a strong value add, so you don’t want to cut that time. But, if customer service representatives spend the last minute of calls chatting about the weather, that’s not a good return on investment and something you’ll want to eliminate.

2: Introduce digital self-service with a plan  

Nearly every utility has expanded customer self-service for new energy starts and basic billing questions, but few have advanced the plan for more complicated customer engagements that drive calls.  After mapping the value stream, it’s important to prioritize the key challenges driving customer calls and prioritize a plan to increase digital self-service capabilities.  And self-service doesn’t always require big and expensive changes to your website. 

A great way to reduce the number of incoming calls is to increase the use of chatbots and virtual agents. Chatbots can simulate human conversation and speed interactions with your customers by automating responses to common questions while also managing multiple concurrent conversations. Virtual agents can take these interactions one step further. They comprehend what customers say over the phone and add natural language processing to gradually learn how to speak and sound more human.

These technologies help utilities quickly resolve basic customer issues like helping customers make changes to their account information or get answers to a billing question.   A virtual agent or chatbot can be programmed to walk customers step by step through their bill, which helps avoid follow-on calls to a live agent. And because chatbots and virtual agents never sleep, customers can contact you anytime and still get the service they need, resulting in greater overall satisfaction.

3: Add multiple customer feedback loops

If your utility is implementing a get-to-zero program, it’s very important to have multiple feedback loops from your customer interactions. Say you’re testing a new online feature. How are you gathering input from the customers who use it and measuring their satisfaction?

New CX tools enable utilities to take the pulse of customer sentiment by sending a quick text message or email survey after every chat, voice or email interaction. These brief customer surveys provide valuable customer feedback in near real time to give utilities helpful telemetry on how customers feel about the new self-service features. If a feature creates tension for customers, these milestone surveys give utilities the insights required to make helpful changes and improve the customer experience early in the process to avoid impacts to every customer. 

Final takeaway

The prevalence of highly personalized customer experiences across industries has established a new standard of consumer engagement for utility companies. This means utilities must find ways to keep customers happy even while trying to limit call volume and reduce costs. Introducing more digital experiences is a great way to respond to customer concerns and get insight into customer issues before little problems become big ones.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Feb 23, 2022

Most people I talk with hate they automated systems that don't meet any of their needs. A real person makes them feel valued.  QUOTE=A virtual agent or chatbot can be programmed to walk customers step by step through their bill, which helps avoid follow-on calls to a live agent.

Mark Wilkinson's picture
Mark Wilkinson on Feb 24, 2022

Jim - I agree completely, and I suggest that your examples perfectly amplify my point.  Used well, those digital tools can help a customer with self service.  Used poorly, they increase customer DIS-satisfaction.  I would never advocate for badly implemented automation, but technology has been catching up with customer's interest in self-service.  Contact Center costs increase faster than many utilities can adapt, so I just recommend the tools be part of a well administered program.  The challenge with many GTZ programs is that the drive to get to zero calls drives some decisions that ironically creates more calls from more upset customers than doing nothing at all.  

Janna Normington's picture
Janna Normington on Mar 3, 2022

Very thoughtful considerations for the implementation of a successful Get To Zero program.  Utilities need to carefully manage the fine line between optimal customer service and driving down costs.  It is a challenging undertaking, which can be tremendously successful, if enacted properly/

Mark Wilkinson's picture
Thank Mark for the Post!
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