Customer service is an important source of competitive advantage in today’s age of cut-throat competition. However, many utilities have not given customer service its due.
Until recently, utilities could get away with paying scant attention to all facets of customer service, considering the difficulty and effort involved for customers to transfer to another provider, and also the fact that many utilities enjoyed a monopoly or near-monopoly status. But utilities are now de-regulated private enterprises, with competition is increasing by the day. Worse, alternative products such as microturbines and fuel cells could mean customers bypassing the traditional power grids altogether..
Customer service now has a telling effect on the overall health of a utility, just as it is the case with any other industry. Customer service is a key differentiator, with a direct impact on the bottom line. Regulators consider customer satisfaction scores and view low satisfaction scores with disfavor when it comes to rating adjustments. A recent J.D. Power study reveals a 0.5% increase in ROE among utilities in the top quartile of customer satisfaction one year prior to a rate case, compared to utilities landing in the bottom quartile of customer satisfaction rating.
There is also a proven correlation between customer service and trust. About 96% of customers who rate an organization nine or ten for customer satisfaction also cite the highest levels of trust.
The Issue of Perception
As the adage goes, “perception is reality.”
For utilities, a big problem is a gap in perceptions about the actual customer experience. Capgemini research estimates 79% of utilities believing to be customer-centric when only 7% of customers believe their utilities are customer-centric. The latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) results give UK’s utility industry an overall customer satisfaction rating of 73.3 out of 100, which is below the overall UK average by 4.1 points.
The biggest customer service bugbears, cutting across sectors are employees lacking the capability to be of immediate help ‘disinterested’ or poorly motivated staff, and poor complaint handling. Energy companies often face stark criticism for their lackadaisical way of handling customer complaints, on all these fronts.
While many sectors offer self-service as an option to cut through disinterested staff and painful call-centers, it has not yet caught up big-time in the utility sector. As such, issues such as wasting trying to get hold of an agent on the phone is still a major irritant for utility customers.
Utility providers need to swim with the trend and offer customer service proactively. Intuitive mobile apps, which offer ready information to customers on aspects such as the location of field service technician or utility truck, goes a long way in improving customer service.
Utility providers would also do well to apply predictive analytics and Artificial Intelligence tools, to understand what the customer wants, and offer the information proactively. For instance, a customer with a scheduled appointment could be delivered a push notification regarding the status and ETA of the technicians. Similarly deploying chatbots could offer a more complete experience, with the subscriber delivered much more comprehensive information that they may volunteer to ask.
The biggest challenge facing utilities seeking to improve field-level customer service is the opacity of operational information.
Empowering customers with proactive real-time status updates across channels and devices is the key to customer satisfaction. Wide service windows, vague status updates and a general lack of information put off customers.
However, most utilities run on a patchwork of systems, with little real-time integration between systems. As such, it may be difficult for a contact center executive answering a query on “when will the utility truck arrive at my place” to simply look up a screen and provide the answer. Worse, propagating information to multiple systems sets the stage for potential errors and impedes the seamless flow of information across the enterprise.
Customers, however, are not convinced by such internal limitations and regard lack of immediate, reliable information as poor customer service.
Utilities need to overhaul their systems to ensure a seamless real-time data exchange between customers, field crews, office employees, customer service agents, and other stakeholders. They could especially consider implementing a robust enterprise service bus (ESB) to provide a faster, reliable exchange of information between systems.
A complete overhaul of the system may be practical or even technically not viable for most utilities. Providers may rather have to look towards the intelligent use of technologies to deliver a wide range of real-time integrations and capabilities to customers.
Regardless of the option adopted, a clear policy on data governance, aimed at eradicating silos is the basic requirement in this front. Many providers, even when aware of the need to change, put off such upgrades, fearing the short-term disruption such a changeover would pose. However, the implications for continuing with an imperfect status-quo would become more costly with every passing day.
Digital and mobile touch points have already become entrenched in the customer’s lifestyle, and these technologies will become even more pervasive in the coming years. Customers now expect advanced information and functionality such as demand management, dynamic pricing, and distributed energy through digital touch points. Utility providers, for instance, need to set-up elevated field-level engagement tactics centered on customer devices and synced with localized circuit conditions. The quality of the digitally intelligent experiences on offer may very well become the key differentiator among utility brands.
While the quantity of information available through digital channels is one dimension of customer service, the quality of service on offer is another important and often underestimated dimension. Customers who interact with utility field crews in their neighborhoods, homes, and businesses, through disparate channels, expect a consistent experience across-the-board. Utilities need to develop digital assets which deliver a consistent brand experience across channels.
Utilities strive to increase their service levels by introducing new technologies, overhauling their aging facilities, constantly removing obstacles such as trees which that lead to power outages, and also by and expanding capacity. Side-by-side to such core operational tasks, they also strive for hyper-efficiency in their staff functions, and especially customer support. Addressing customer queries in a timely and knowledgeable manner, and introducing new products to sync with customer preferences better, are the major focus in this area.
With high-quality BPO services now available at very competitive rates, even smaller utilities are embracing outsourcing in a big way. Outsourcing of back-office activities, customer support and related customer service activities, such as field service tracking and queries,
Utilities have reported 30% or more reduction in total cost of ownership, by embracing outsourcing. The ability to focus managerial attention on core aspects of the business and access to skills and capabilities, not present in-house are spin-off benefits.
Utilities ignore customer service at their peril. The impact of a customer perceiving poor customer service need not be immediate or even direct. Even if the customer does not switch to another provider immediately, the customer may well do so later, or worse, may spread the word around, prompting friends and relatives to opt for another provider.
Utilities need to improve governance, mobilize all available internal and external resources, and execute a multi-level and multi-stage action plan to improve their customer experience, especially on the field service front. A tech partner who has walked their talk, with proven expertise in delivering workable and practical field service solutions, helps.