Technology / The expert view: Transforming customer experience for the utilities sector

The expert view: Transforming customer experience for the utilities sector

Senior executives from a range of utilities companies took part in a Business Reporter breakfast briefing at London's Goring Hotel recently to discuss transforming customer experience. The conversation was held under Chatham House rules and was sponsored by Genesys.

Graham Segers, of Genesys, began the round table conversation by highlighting the growing demand for 'omnichannel' communications and the importance for businesses of being able to manage customer interactions across all channels. He asked attendees how they were dealing with a changing sector.

Drivers of change

The next five years will probably see more change in this sector than in the previous 55, said one attendee. He cited a number of factors, such as the increase in data from smart meters, the move to electric cars, which will add increased demand to the energy sector, and the threat of climate change.

These external forces are driving the need to transform customer experience, while still servicing existing demand. For water companies in particular, climate change is a significant threat. With water shortages threatening, said one attendee, we really have to get customers to preserve and value water much more than they do. Ideally, that has to be done without them thinking that they are getting poor service.

Meanwhile, a segment of customers are planning to change their relationship with utilities companies, generating more of their own energy and only using the grid to top up. That different relationship will drive different expectations.

Expectations

Customers expect a lot for very little money, attendees agreed. The media, government and public have all come to see utilities price rises as nothing more than greed, despite the fact that these areas require investment to ensure that they don’t fail.

The industry needs to communicate to customers that the value of a product is not the product itself but what it enables you to do. Electricity, for example, means power for your Facebook interactions with friends. One attendee said that the main complaint during power cuts is not the loss of television, lights or the fridge freezer but Wi-Fi. He said his firm was looking at equipping a van with a mobile hotspot that could be sent to areas without power temporarily.

Although they expect low prices, customers were not willing to lower their expectations of service quality in return. One attendee said that research her firm had carried out showed that customers were not willing to forgo a call centre even if it meant lower prices.

Customers also expect an omnichannel service too, which puts pressure on utilities firms. Their expectation was being set by the leading internet firms, such as Amazon and Apple, who provide excellent customer service and utility firms were not often equipped to match that.

Technology

Although most utility companies do not have the same technology might as Amazon or Apple, some had started using it in regards to customer service. We can predict complaints based on how many calls a customer makes in a certain time period and we can even predict whether a customer is likely to take their complaint to the ombudsman, said one attendee. We should be able to use this information to make better decisions about intervention in customer interactions, he said. However, another attendee said that, for him, it was very difficult to pass information like that to where it is needed because of legacy software systems that do not join up.

As with customer experience teams in other sectors, attendees said they were looking at where they can use artificial intelligence and bots to manage interactions. One said his company was hoping to be able to manage a power cut entirely without human interaction – from handling reports from customers, through to keeping them informed during the outage.

However, another attendee cautioned against technology for the sake of it. She said she had seen too many businesses adopt technology without really knowing what they planned to do with it. For example, too many companies have decided they need a mobile app without having any idea why.

One area where utilities are having, to manage new technology is with smart meters. A lot of customers get very excited by the prospect of being able to manage their energy better but the novelty quickly wears off, attendees said. Nevertheless, utilities firms have to hope that they don’t raise expectations too high.

Smart meters put customers in a position where they potentially know more than their customers and it could damage customer confidence if they call their supplier for energy advice only to find that the supplier has no ideas.

Utilities firms find themselves in a difficult position. Face with unprecedented change, they are also serving customers who are hostile to price increases and demanding about the level of service they expect. What’s more, those customers have more choice than ever. The need to transform has never been more apparent.

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