By Rodger Smith, Oracle Utilities
Today’s consumers have grown to expect the personalization they receive from Amazon, Netflix, Google and others within every aspect of their lives-even from their utility providers. It is this high level of engagement that creates each customer’s experience, unique to his or her tastes and needs, designed to deliver the maximum impact for his or her life and the greatest benefit from the services rendered.
It has been proven that personalization and higher engagement works. This translates into major gains for businesses across many industries. Oracle Corp.’s 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report revealed that 86 percent of customers say they would pay more for a better customer service experience.
But what are the best ways for utilities to do this?
Dealing With the Data
To better engage the modern consumer, utilities need to deliver a positive customer experience in ways that resonate with the people they serve. The wealth of customer data available to utilities-including usage patterns, billing and payment preferences, communication preferences and more-is key to managing changing customer expectations and keeping satisfaction high. But while data is key, better engagement goes well beyond simply having the data on tap.
A fully integrated approach to customer data and program management provides the utility with numerous advantages, including the ability to:
- Engage with customers through multiple channels.
- Drive more effective, successful customer programs.
- Tailor customer communications to fit their preferences.
- Provide utility customer service representatives with the tools and information they need to resolve customer questions quickly in order to improve customer experience.
A multi-faced approach that crosses traditional industry silos, incorporating all data connected to the customer and sharing appropriate segments of that data across other areas of the business (from billing to customer service to outage management and so forth) will go a long way toward creating a seamless customer experience.
To do so, however, utilities must consider a number of available tools within the modern customer engagement toolkit.
Enabling the Mobile Customer
The always-on, 24/7 customer of today generally prefers low-touch, mobile channels rather than high-touch telephone calls to customer service. The ability to pay bills online and manage services and issues (including outages) quickly and at any time of day or night is a growing imperative.
It sounds simple, but J.D. Power’s 2015 Utility Website Evaluation Study, released in March of this year, found that while the number of U.S. utilities deploying a mobile-enabled website or app is increasing year-over-year, customers who access their utility’s website via mobile have more difficulty than those using a desktop computer.
The tasks examined by the study (depending upon the type of utility being surveyed) included: set up an online account; account log in; view consumption history; review account information; make a payment; research energy saving information; update service; report outages; view outages; locate contact information; perform account and profile maintenance; and locate gas leak information. Underperforming mobile sites and apps, according to the J.D. Power study, lead to lower customer service satisfaction and, ultimately, lower overall satisfaction.
At best, a utility’s mobile-ready services provide useful information and services on demand, while engaging with customers through the channels they prefer. Beyond the benefits of increased customer satisfaction, there are other business benefits to this multi-channeled approach. Most significantly, by delivering more customer-centric communication and services, a utility can reduce call center operating costs by diverting calls to self-service options. In addition, it can proactively manage service disruption events.
The Value of Social Media
Social media is one particular mobile communications tool that is seeing a dramatic increase in consumer use and by utilities, as well. In fact, social media is fundamentally changing the way utilities approach customer interaction.
A multi-faceted communications tool, social media channels offer utilities many new ways in which to engage customers. They can monitor what’s being said about them, disseminate messages (whether broadly or to identified segments of their customer base), better connect one-on-one with individual customers and even identify online “influencers” who will champion utilities’ messages.
Electric, gas and water utilities are engaging Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and other online channels in their efforts to open new lines of communication in the places where their customers and other interested parties are communicating and to adopt a more informed customer service role.
Each communications channel a utility uses has its own strength. Choosing the right communications channel for each customer and each communication is key, and it is important when switching from one channel to another to keep the experience seamless for the customer.
Experts expect more and more service-driven interactions to come through social media channels in the future, where consumers see greater possibilities for 24/7, near real-time discussions and problem resolution. The ability to connect these vital interactions with the rest of a utility customer’s information is crucial.
In turn, social data, when collected, filtered and integrated with transactional and structured data within customer relationship management and other key utility operational and business systems, can be an incredibly powerful, near real-time tool within the utility’s customer management and engagement toolset.
Unlocking new Doors With Data Analytics
In concert with analytics, all of this new data can provide the utility with a 360-degree view of each customer, allowing for the better delivery of service excellence.
For many utilities, data analytics remains a largely untapped resource. The industry continues to be hindered by information silos, static business processes and skills gaps that make utility adoption of data analytics challenging.
The rewards are many, however. By integrating and analyzing data from all customer touch points (i.e., meter data, billing data, outage data, customer communications and more), utilities can derive even greater insight into customer usage trends. Utilities then can apply this information to:
- Provide usage-driven insights to customers
- Drive customer program participation
- Monitor customer program and service performance
- Identify top energy users for targeted, proactive approach and educate them on the value of an energy audit or consultation
- Resolve meter or billing issues before they impact the customer
- More effectively operate and maintain your distribution system
- Track your utility’s customer engagement progress over time, making ongoing improvements to programs and services
Looking to the Future
Managing and nurturing positive customer engagement is an ongoing, fluid process, not a set-and-forget, one-time automated effort. With respect to new customer programs, for instance, it’s important to track progress, recognize which messages and programs are capturing customers’ attention, and understand how those programs are impacting their overall customer experience. The lessons you learn with each effort, each program and each new communications channel can be iteratively directed into the planning for future efforts and programs.
Rodger Smith is Oracle Utilities’ senior vice president and general manager,