Customer Service

Utility call centers lag behind other industries

Issue 8 and Volume 77.

Although call centers have become a big business throughout the United States-serving as the most frequent point of contact with customers-a survey conducted by Ernst & Young LLP (E&Y) indicates electric and gas utility call centers are among the poorest performers in delivering both efficient and effective service. According to the E&Y survey, which polled 326 call center managers from various companies across the nation, call centers in the healthcare and banking markets received the highest marks (75 and 70 percent, respectively) for above average performance, while not one call center in the utilities industry obtained this achievement.

The survey attributes this deficiency in large part to the long duration of talk time required for solving service and billing problems. For example, callers must often be put on hold while information is verified, payment histories are checked or service schedules are determined. The challenge for utility executives, as identified by E&Y, is to follow the lead of other industries and streamline these processes-enhancing the role of the call center as a means of not only retaining customers but also building new relationships.

Most call centers, according to the survey, are primarily managed for efficiency (e.g. average time-in-queue, calls per agent, average service level, etc.), with speed and productivity as dominating factors. And, fewer than one-third of the centers surveyed are tracking effectiveness measures such as the percent of first-time-to-final calls and complaints as a percentage of calls. However, a few of the more progressive centers see the importance of balancing efficiency and effectiveness. Call center managers are also beginning to recognize that their objectives and performance need to fall in line with their company`s overall business strategy to maximize value.

“We are going to see some dramatic shifts in the nature of call centers throughout the United States,” said Edward Nolte, senior manager at E&Y in the customer connections practice area. “Of the call centers surveyed, more than 33 percent said that they are planning to place an increased emphasis on customer access and sales rather than focusing primarily on customer care activities.”

Almost 20 percent of call centers surveyed have implemented computer telephony integration (CTI), and while only 33 percent currently use a separate customer care system (e.g. Clarify, Scopus, Vantive), interest in implementing these systems is quickly increasing.

“It`s all a matter of finding the right balance-between efficiency and effectiveness, personnel and technology-to achieve maximum performance,” said Nolte.