Innovating the Customer Experience with Modern Technologies: A Conversation with Justine Schneider of DTE Energy [Recognizing One of the 2023 Energy Central Innovation Champions]

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Energy Analyst, Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Jun 13, 2023

This item is part of the Leaders of Innovation - May/June 2023 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Earlier this year, Energy Central dispatched our annual call for nominations for power professionals leading the way in Innovation, and we're proud to announce the 5 winners and 4 honorable mentions, which you can read about here. This week, we'll be spotlighting each of those winners after conducting interviews to learn more about their great work. 

Please help us celebrate Justine’s and the other champions' successes by reading some of the insights garnered from these exclusive Innovation Champion Interviews.

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In the rapidly evolving world of utilities, innovation has become a critical driving force for companies seeking to enhance customer experiences and meet the ever-changing demands of the industry. DTE, a prominent utility company serving customers in Michigan, has embarked on a transformative journey, embracing innovation as a core principle to revolutionize their operations and better serve their customers.

In this exclusive interview, we sit down with Justine Schneider, Senior Strategist at DTE Energy, who was nominated and ultimately chosen as a 2023 Energy Central Innovation Champion for her work on a range of initiatives tailored to improving the payment experience for DTE’s customers, particularly those that are cash-paying or underbanked, including the 2021 project migrating DTE’s payments from an existing kiosk network to a new kiosk network.

As a key champion of innovation at DTE, in this conversation we delve into her remarkable efforts and gain insights into how they have harnessed the power of innovation to reshape the utility sector:


Matt Chester: Congratulations on being selected as one of our Champions of Innovation for 2023! Can you tell us a bit about your role in the utility sector and how you got started in this space?

Justine Schneider: I joined DTE and the utility industry in 2017. Prior to that, my professional consulting experience in strategy spanned multiple industries throughout the country, encompassing both customer-facing and back-office roles. After relocating to Detroit in 2015, I found my path leading me to DTE and their impressive customer service organization. Since joining the company, I have been involved in various aspects of the customer service strategy group. It’s been so rewarding to be a part of a company where I can work on projects which directly impact my neighbors and friends as DTE customers.


MC: You were nominated by a peer in this industry for the history of working on innovative technology and business service projects at DTE, specifically including improving the payment experience for your customers. Tell us a bit about these efforts and how you came to take a leadership role in those pursuits?

JS: In 2021, we successfully executed a comprehensive revamp of our kiosk network. Our objective was to renew our strategic focus on our kiosk network while also enhancing the customer experience at our neighborhood payment kiosks.

One of the advantages of working in customer strategy is the diverse range of projects that come my way. I have had the opportunity to work on various customer experience initiatives within the digital channels. Prior to the kiosk channel modernization, we implemented chat functionality on our website, and currently, I am focusing on notification systems to ensure our customers have the information they need while minimizing impact on our call center. It has been gratifying to apply my prior experiences to these endeavors and see how our work makes a difference with our customers.

In terms of the kiosk network, it was important to me that we dug in to understand nuances of our existing kiosk digital customer experience and how customers engage with us as a utility which proved invaluable during this project. We initiated this project in 2021, and our primary objective was to achieve an intuitive kiosk experience for our customer with no negative impacts to our customer during the change.


MC: What were the stated goals or aspirations of these efforts, and how have you been able to track progress towards success towards them?

JS: Our primary objective for this transformation was to establish better control over the kiosk network while ensuring that the customer experience matched our other digital channels. Additionally, we aimed to reduce the overall number of kiosks from the previous count of around 80 when we realized a utilization imbalance across our locations. Since we were transitioning from working with a third-party vendor to owning the network ourselves, we conducted a thorough analysis of customer behavior and location data for the preceding six to twelve months. This analysis allowed us to make informed decisions and work towards our goals. Our utmost priority was to implement this change without any negative impact on our customers. It was non-negotiable for us that customers maintained their trust in us and experienced a seamless transition. We had predefined metrics to assess the viability of our strategy during the planning phase, and now we have operational metrics in place to monitor customer behavior.

When planning the rollout, we examined various factors related to our customers' kiosk usage. We considered which kiosks they frequented the most and whether those kiosks were conveniently located near their residence, workplace, or other important locations. We delved into nuanced aspects of customer behavior data to determine which locations were essential and which ones showed lower transaction volumes. Even for the kiosks we planned to discontinue, we had to devise a strategy for informing customers and redirecting them to alternative locations, all while maintaining our goal of zero negative impact. We measured this by ensuring zero customer complaints throughout the process, and I am proud to say that we achieved this milestone.

Following the implementation, we have established a robust system for tracking customer data in collaboration with our third-party kiosk vendor. This allows us to monitor transaction volumes, customer visits, and the types of transactions conducted at each kiosk on a daily and weekly basis. We report these metrics regularly to our executive team and use them to inform decision-making regarding our kiosk network. It's worth noting that we apply the same level of measurement and standards to our kiosks as we do to our website and mobile app, ensuring consistency and effectiveness across all digital channels.


MC: Is there anything you’ve learned during this process that you wish you had known in the beginning? Anything you’d do different or advice you’d offer to peers in the industry seeking to make progress in the same way you have?

JS: When reflecting on this journey, my response to this question often surprises people, as they expect a tactical answer. However, I believe it's crucial to emphasize the things we did right and highly recommend them to others. One key aspect that worked exceptionally well for us was implementing a customized marketing campaign aimed at informing our customers. Given that some customers' kiosk locations were changing, while others remained the same but underwent significant visual transformations, we tailored our communication approach accordingly. For customers facing a change in their kiosk location, we sent personalized postcards informing them about the new next best location based on their transaction history. This involved analyzing thousands of transactions to determine the optimal alternative kiosk, considering factors such as proximity and accessibility. We provided customers with multiple notices through mail, email, and even phone calls to ensure they had ample time to adjust.

One crucial lesson I learned, which I initially underestimated, was the challenges faced by our primarily cash-based customers, especially those without checking accounts (unbanked customers). It was essential to gain a deep understanding of their needs and experiences. At the project's inception, I had limited exposure to our kiosk customers since I pay my bill online via auto-pay. To bridge this knowledge gap, I personally visited one of our local grocery stores, which housed a previous kiosk setup. My intention was to pay my own bill and note any pain points in the process, such as button placement. However, what struck me most were the experiences of other customers using the kiosk alongside me. I observed customers waiting in line, often with children, and the realization that a long wait could significantly impact their lives, especially during dinner time. This shifted my perspective from solely focusing on on-screen improvements to considering the overall customer experience and how we could make their lives easier at every touchpoint. This valuable firsthand experience heavily influenced our approach to the kiosk overhaul and continues to shape our digital kiosk strategy. I am passionate about sharing this insight with others involved in kiosk strategy projects.


MC: Can you give a preview of what sort of next steps may be in the pipeline? What can DTE customers expect in the coming years and what sorts of projects continuing to pursue these goals might your peers in the utility sector hope to draw inspiration from in the future?

JS: Our primary focus remains on serving our customers and integrating ease and trust into their everyday interactions with us as a utility company. It's truly remarkable to witness the progress we are making and what was once deemed impossible just a few years ago. As we develop our roadmaps for all our digital channels, we are particularly focused on expanding our transactional capabilities across these channels.

While it's widely known that customers can pay their bills online or through our mobile app, we aim to extend the reach of our digital channels to encompass various aspects of transactions. We want our customers to feel well taken care of without the need for them to call in, which can often be more convenient for them. This objective applies to all channels, including our kiosk channel. For instance, we recently expanded our collections process into the kiosk channel. Collections can be a stressful and urgent situation for our customers, so we aim to provide them with the same level of digital channel experience as in other areas. We are implementing components of the collections transaction within our kiosk channel and IDR (Interactive Voice Response) to not only make the process less stressful but also reduce the turnaround time once their bill is paid. This development is highly exciting, and I appreciate any opportunity to align aspects of transactions across multiple channels.

I am a strong advocate for creating predictability across our channels. Even if a customer solely interacts with us digitally and never calls our IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system, they should have a sense of the type of service they can expect when reaching out to our call center or automated system because of their prior experience with us in the digital channel. This seamless integration is something I find particularly compelling.

Furthermore, we are actively implementing cutting-edge technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) in all our digital channels. These platforms play a significant role in helping us achieve our goals every day and deliver an enhanced customer experience.

As for our peers in the utility sector, I believe our expansion of digital transactions and the integration of various processes across channels can serve as inspiration. By leveraging technology and data-driven insights, utilities can strive for seamless, customer-centric experiences that foster trust and convenience. Embracing advancements like RPA and investing in robust digital platforms can be instrumental in realizing these goals.


MC: Something we want to ask all of our champions: what does innovation mean to you, especially when it comes to the utility sector? And how do you ensure it finds its way into the DNA of your teams rather than just being a buzz word? 

JS: It's fascinating to see how the perception of innovation in the utility sector has evolved in just a few years. Previously, it was common to make jokes about utilities and innovation not going hand in hand, considering many utility companies have names that date back a century or more. However, I have witnessed a significant shift, both within DTE and in our benchmarking community among our peers.

For me, innovation is about envisioning what is already possible – “imagining the possible” as an industry colleague pointed out. It's not always about the seemingly impossible, like flying cars, but rather about identifying ways we can better serve our customers and setting goals to achieve customer-valued innovation. We understand that the tools and solutions we need likely already exist in other industries or within the utility sector itself. It's about reapplying and adapting those existing technologies to meet the needs of our customers. It might not revolutionize the industry overnight, but it can make a tangible difference in our customers' day-to-day lives. It could mean providing quicker tips on saving energy or streamlining the time it takes to complete transactions with us.

Innovation also extends to how our teams operate at DTE. We embrace agile work methods to drive improvements. This means we can implement changes in a matter of weeks rather than years, responding swiftly to customer needs. It's not limited to product development; we apply agile methods to our strategic planning and ideation processes as well. By doing so, we ensure that innovation permeates every aspect of our work.

Ultimately, the goal of innovation is to enhance our customers' experiences and provide them with more time for what truly matters to them. Paying their bill should be a quick and seamless task so that they can get back to their lives. We strive to make lasting improvements that have a positive impact on our customers, and this is an immensely fulfilling aspect of my work.


Read about the other Innovation Selections here:

Check out the full Innovation Special Issue here:


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