What do you love most about the "Amazon Experience" that could be translated for the utility customer experience and how would it work?

Posted to Utility 2030 Collaborative in the Customer Care Group
Christina Corcoran's picture
Partner & COO Appos Advisors and Utility 2030 Collaborative

Christina is COO of Appos Advisors, a go-to-market consulting firm that helps technology companies resonate with their customers in unique and powerful ways. Christina is also the Advisory Board...

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  • Jul 7, 2021 3:19 pm GMT
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Another crowdsourcing request from the Utility 2030 Collaborative that we want to share with the Energy Central community. Those participating in the focus group, “If Amazon Was a Utility – How It Would Transform its’ CX?, want to know what you love most about the Amazon experience that could be translated for the utility customer experience? If you want to learn more about the group visit, Focus Group: If Amazon Was a Utility – How It Would Transform its’ CX? – UTILITY 2030. We're still accepting members.

I would not consider the Amazon experience a good model. After all, electricity is not a product that you can return for a refund--the closest you will get to that is disputing and/or not paying your bill... In most areas of the country you cannot even "shop around" for it.  What you "buy" from a utility is service that is already included in your rates. The level of customer service is completely different and AI often has the annoying habit of not answering your questions. Data privacy is also important, and many will rightfully question whether the utility is selling customer data to third parties. 

From a users point of view, you don't need AI to walk you through to establish or change service, you need a clear succinct data entry form with a direct and timely way to contact an actual human. Utility Service programs don't need annoying pop ups or AI, which more often than not makes someone spend more time getting around them to just get basic things done. Just a static display of utility programs/links, with one selected to be featured on a rotating basis, that can be clicked on for more information is all most people really need. 

What you do need in cases where rates are time of day based, is a display of current and historical usage, broken down by time of day. Tips for reducing/adjusting usage would certainly be appropriate via a static graphic or a link from the usage report. Adding intermediaries via AI or third party marketing and obtrusive ads for other services is not better customer service, it is a form of disintermediation that comes between the utility and their ratepayers/customers. Sometimes simple and low tech is still better.

Amazon (and other digital-first companies like Netflix) do a great job of combining personalized recommendations with proactive outreach. Amazon not only knows what type of water filter my refrigerator needs, it reminds me to "order again" when the time comes.

Netflix not only recommends movies and series I would like, it prompts me to finish a series I have started or alerts me when a new season is posted of a series I watched. 

I appreciate that these recommendations are personalized as well as being timely and actionable. In other words, they are truly helpful.

As others have noted here, personalization can definitely go too far and be perceived as creepy or intrusive. But customers will accept the use of their data when they find personalization valuable. (I don't love the idea of Google Maps tracking my location, but I can't argue with how valuable the service is.) Demonstrate to customers that they benefit from your personalization efforts and proactive outreach.

I'll focus on one aspect of the Amazon customer experience - convenience. When you want to return an item, Amazon has built several partnerships with other companies to improve the process of product returns significantly. In the old days, returning a product was a hassle. Remember? You had to find the receipt, stand in line at the customer return desk, then feel guilty about returning the product. What's wrong with it? Ahh, you probably broke it yourself. It just took time and felt terrible. Today, if you want to return the item, you go online, get a QR code and bring it to any UPS store. You don't have to pack it - they take of everything. No justification for why you are returning the item. Most times, Amazon credited your account within a few minutes. Amazon has also partnered with some department stores to do the same thing. Part of the magic is the technology behind the process. Somehow Amazon and UPS have figured out how to collaborate.

Moving to utilities, the process of a customer (or electrician usually) getting a new connection is still awkward. That's because the process involves other entities - a street opening permit from the state, a wiring permit from the city, inspection from the wire inspector, pole petition plan to the planning board, etc. One could imagine an Amazon-like experience that creates a one-stop situation in which all agencies coordinate their systems on behalf of the customer. The hard work is behind the scenes, crafting process and technology relationships and partnerships. The results would likely be a shortened process for everyone, saving money and reducing the time to complete the work.

Today, there are no technology barriers, not with the cloud, modern GIS, and web services in everyday use. So, it could work, but it would require the will of all parties.

 

 

Rohan Raghunath's picture
Rohan Raghunath on Jul 14, 2021

Love how you articulated this!!

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Jul 15, 2021

Hi Rohan,  thanks for your kind comments.

1) Customer obsessed mindset: 

- Whenever I buy any product on Amazon or consider buying through browsing the website, there is always recommendations generated through deep insights. These are tailored to what my perceived or analyzed needs are. I would be thrilled if Utilities/REPs could come to me with custom offers of electricity plans tailored to my usage and how much I could save vs. what I could gain based on my usage patterns if I could take their recommendation.

- Post buying engagement keeps customer always engaged and increases recall. Amazon would always check-in and ask for product reviews and experiences, which in-turn helps them too. I wonder if Utilities and REPs could have more post-storm engagement (like the one in Texas) with their customers to check-in on general well-being and providing crucial tips on how to bring life back on track. I saw a lot of folks get general updates during the storm but post storm engagement in terms of partnering with the community in education as well as partnering in recovery was limited. 

2) Near Real-time connects and disconnects 

- Amazon has made "buy on click or swipe" a norm in the industry. Electricity being de-regulated on the retail/REP side in a few sates helps customer chose plans from an open marketplace. Connects and disconnects could take up to 48 to 72 hours or sometimes more. With so much of real-time integrations between systems, can this not be expedited? 

3) Collaborations to enhance loyalty:

- Amazon collaborates with Chase to provide the Amazon Prime credit cards to its customers. I got that card as I always shop with Amazon using the same for the rewards and the 5% instant discount I get. Can't Utility companies/REPs increase loyalty by fostering collaborations? The customer feels rewarded for sticking with the REP. I often wonder why that's not the case!

Honestly Christina, what I love most about the Amazon Experience is nothing. The total absence of personal customer service, relentless data mining of its customers, and predatory pricing make saving a few bucks on retail merchandise unworth the effort. I certainly wouldn't want to trust my electrical service to the company.

Amazon is frequently a reference point for CX experiences, and Kodak is an example of what not to do in a rapidly changing industry. I think referencing other industries is important, if not critical, as companies like Amazon raise the bar for consumer expectations. The difference, though, is that most energy users don't think about energy until they pay the bill or the lights go out. Utilities that improve the online experience are taking a step in the right direction. But, how can the operational side of utilities keep CX in mind too?

I once heard a story about an operational team's frustration with new processes and mobile technology intended to improve the customer experience during outages. The change involved a mobile app that reported the status of any outage out in the field, which then pushed an estimated time of restoration update to the energy user(s) without power. The operations team explained why they were frustrated with the process: "If we have to go out to the truck to document the status, expected restoration time, etc. that's precious time away from restoring the power. If you are without power, what would you prefer - a message about when the power is expected to come back on or the power coming back in ASAP?"

One of most amazing, if not a bit creepy part, of Amazon’s CX is the ability to provide recommendations. Given that I have pretty eclectic tastes, it fascinates me how Amazon can predict products that may appeal to me. And, of course it works as I consider new recommendations. What if a utility could do the same? What if, when logging on to pay a bill or check the balance, the utility would send “recommendations” to sign up for a new energy efficiency program, complete an online energy audit, and check out the newest social engagement strategy to reduce energy consumption. The possibilities are endless as the utility could start matching program solutions to specific customer needs or groups.

 

This approach would raise awareness and generate interest in all types of efficiency services while also promoting cross-over marketing to check out solar options or products offered on its online marketplace. Utilities are a trusted information source, so let’s turn that trust into actionable recommendations that benefit the utility, the customer, and the planet.

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jul 12, 2021

I love this idea Katherine.  I think there are many programs out there that customers are not even aware of.  Curious - how do you handle customers like me, that have their utility bill on auto-pay and hardly ever look at my utility bill?  

Katherine Johnson's picture
Katherine Johnson on Jul 12, 2021

That is a pretty common issue, as most folks never even think about the bill, unless it is really high. One idea is to send out email blasts promoting energy conservation tips during heat waves (like the one I'm in right now), or other seasonal tips.

 

Another way to engage with "absent" customers is to partner with local community members to promote earth-friendly ideas. Chances are, if you're on auto-pay, you're probably a big fan of recycling, etc. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 12, 2021

I'd imagine there are also lots of opportunities to re-engage with programs that really do benefit the customers without any real catch: rebates on efficient or smart appliances, free energy audits, EV information, etc. Then based on which of those types of programs do in fact create re-engagement (clicks on emails, web portal visits, or even program sign ups) you can put that data to work compared with other customers to see what else those customers may be interested in. 

I think Amazon was successful in illuminating the purchasing options, both in price and product, on a consumer's screen, and that comparison service won the trust of buyers. Having a dashboard updated daily with connectivity to your Nest and other digital tools that calculates energy efficiency savings, time of day costs, profitability of adding solar and batteries, etc. along with approved vendors (including their own) would help de-mystify electricity products while encouraging lower carbon alternatives.

The Amazon marketplace which has many choices could be a model for customers to select energy suppliers, rate plans, maintenance services, etc. that are available from the utility.

The "Buy Now" option that condenses the buying experience to a couple of clicks. This would be invaluable to new utility customer sign ups.