An Expert in Every Home - Using AI to Improve Customer Support

Abhay Gupta's picture
Founder & CEO Bidgely

Abhay Gupta is the CEO of Bidgely, a software company that enables utilities to leverage the power of AI to optimize engagement, reduce operational costs, and serve 100% of homes (smart meter and...

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  • Oct 31, 2019

Each year the consulting firm Deloitte surveys hundreds of companies about their customer service strategies and future plans. In its most recent survey of 450 customer contact leaders around the world Deloitte found that artificial intelligence is very much in their future plans: indeed, fully 56% of respondents said they have plans to invest in AI.

The reasons for this high level of interest in AI to help bolster customer service and support are many. One is cost. According to a recent study by LOMA, a trade association for the insurance and financial services industry, the average cost of training a call center employee is $7500. High turnover rates mean that companies have to make those investments frequently. A report by the Quality Assurance & Training Connection (QATC), a call center trade group, turnover among call center employees is twice as high as other industries. There are plenty of other reasons for the increasing use of AI in the form of chatbots and other tools. The software company Autodesk has implemented AI to aid customer service, a move that has improved its customer response time by 99% and lowered its per query cost from between $15 and $200 when handled by people to $1 when virtual customer service agents respond.

The combined power of AI, natural language processing, chatbots, smart speakers and other tools is now making it possible for utilities to achieve some of the same benefits other industries are seeing. At the same time, AI provides utility customers a profoundly knowledgeable energy advisor to answer their questions 24 hours per day. Just as people can currently ask their smart speakers about what’s on their daily schedule or to recommend a local restaurant, technology advances mean it’s now possible for those same devices to be savvy and always-available utility customer service representatives.

“You can ask questions like, ‘Why is my bill so high? How can I save? How can I lower my bill?’”

It’s just one example of how the possibilities around enriched utility customer support are advancing and improving. These enhancements provide utilities with important tools to not only improve customer service and satisfaction but also fend off competitive pressures, including customers generating their own electricity through the embrace of distributed energy resources (DER) like solar and batteries.

Competition isn’t the only thing that’s focused the attention of utilities on improving their customer service. Today’s consumers simply won’t give utilities – or anybody else – a pass on shoddy customer support. And in many ways, customers expect more from their utilities because they already have so much personal information available to them.

“Everyone uses Google, Amazon and these other companies who just offer incredible, personalized, effortless customer service,” said Matthew Hale, product manager at Bidgely, a Mountain View, California-based software company that helps utilities better engage and support customers. “When utilities aren’t giving me useful tips and advice, and personalized recommendations it’s surprising because they have all of my data.”

The changes are taking place thanks in large part to utilities’ increased use of AI. It’s the combination of AI and natural language processing and smart speakers that allows a savvy, automated energy advisor to take up residence in just about any home in America. While impressive, the fact that a utility customer can ask a smart speaker about a high bill and what can be done about it is just one of the breakthroughs. What’s arguably more powerful is that AI enables smart speakers to provide answers that are highly personalized and relevant.

How does it work? AI delivers granular visibility into a utility customer’s energy usage at the appliance level. Sophisticated algorithms help make sense of the data and translate it into information and offers that a utility can make to a customer that can help solve their problems. In other words, it’s like having a massive army of super smart data scientists constantly poring over every utility customer’s energy usage.

“What if you could have someone look at everyone’s bill every month and see who got a high bill? Then you could look into their consumption data, look into their consumption patterns, look at what you know about that home and try to figure out what caused that high bill,” said Hale. “Using AI, we can run that process automatically for every home.”

It’s easy to see how this kind of information can benefit a utility’s customers and also significantly improve customer support. While important, awareness and education about a customer’s energy usage is merely one aspect of customer support. Equally critical is reaching out to customers proactively when they are on track for a high bill and also presenting them with options that can help them do something about it. This approach can take place via email before a customer has even noticed a high bill. “Alerting a customer that they’re on track for a higher than normal energy bill is just the start. It’s also important to provide tangible actions they can take to avoid that high bill, either this month or for next time. It’s about putting the customer back in control,” said Hale.

This type of proactive customer support – either through an email or through an opt-in text message – can solve a lot of issues before anybody is motivated to reach out to a utility call center. In fact, proactive, high bill alerts have been shown to reduce high-bill related calls into a call center by 50%, which is a significant cost savings for utilities.

Even in cases when customers need to speak with a customer service representative, AI can help a utility arm those reps with the information they need to offer helpful insights and recommendations. “They have the insights that AI is recommending for the customer,” said Hale. “They don’t have to walk through a script or try to analyze raw consumption data, which is hard to do, and can be frustrating for both people on the call.”

Tapping AI to reduce call center costs is compelling. "I think the call center cost reduction is pretty real and the utility can probably justify investing based on that, said Hale. "But the customer satisfaction benefit is probably the more compelling one in the long run, and it comes from offering a more modern, up-to-date experience.”

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