by Dan Ward, Detroit Labs
Power and utility companies, like many businesses, look continually for innovative ways to capture enhanced data and use technology better to improve and streamline business operations and provide more customer value. Efficient, cost-effective mobile apps are helping power industry businesses meet their goals.
When designed and used correctly, a high-quality mobile app can become a viable part of a company’s marketing and operational strategy. Apps can provide a quick, easy mobile bill pay option and allow customers to set up or terminate service, report power outages, get power restoration estimates and locate nearby locations with power.
For utilities, creating a compelling, effective customer engagement app that will add significant operational value requires an appreciation for and understanding of the benefits of mobile apps, including app creation best practices and tips for vetting potential app developers.
Power industry companies that are developing mobile apps begin with two strikes against them. Interaction with energy companies-setting up service, paying bills and reporting outages-usually is not fun for customers. At best, these are boring necessities, and frequently the tasks are unpleasant. Making those customer interactions as smooth, efficient and hassle-free as possible becomes more important.
In the power industry, speed and convenience are essential in positive client engagement and integral to shaping customer perception. A great app allows for that quick, easy and direct communication with customers. The faster a customer can report an outage, set up service or pay a bill, the better the experience and the better he or she will feel about a provider.
Successful utility adopters of mobile apps have embraced a model used by leaders in other industries: world-class customer service. These utilities have taken that service-minded, customer-facing approach and paired it with their own goals and operational priorities. And it works well. Utilities cannot forget that they are service companies, and apps are a new, exciting way to provide that service with clarity and concision.
How to Begin
The work before any design or development starts is most important:
1. What must the app accomplish?
2. How will the app fit into short- and long-term goals and priorities?
3. What features does the audience need?
Power companies and utilities should examine their call centers. What kind of transactions are handled through that channel? What is the call volume, and what kind of transactions make up most of that volume? If most calls report outages, then outage reporting needs to be addressed first through the new app. The goal should be to provide the best possible customer service while diverting costly high-volume calls away from the call center.
Partnering With a Developer
Selecting the right mobile app developer is critical. Basic considerations include relevant experience, direct and honest communication, access to references and work samples, and a review of design style and functionality specifics. What’s more important for energy companies is to identify app developers that can scale with their business. It is tempting to implement an app that seems like a quick win, but this can cause significant problems. Take, for example, starting with an easy-to-use outage reporting center. As the company and number of users grow, the app usage volume grows, and the demand for more features and functions will grow correspondingly. This demands a developer that can add features, respond to customers and meet current and future business needs.
Also important is to prioritize app developers that specialize in native development. Apps are mission-critical, and during a power outage or other challenge, they must come through for users. A customer might not use the app for six months, but when he or she needs it, it must work.
Native design is the best and most reliable way to develop apps on mobile devices. Cross-platform budget solutions are not a good fit for an industry in which so much is at stake. Generic apps tend to operate slower, be more rudimentary and have trouble scaling. Most worrying, if Apple or Google releases an update, there is no guarantee that the app will even launch. Native development is more expensive, but it tends to have fewer adjustments and rewrites, which means fewer ongoing maintenance expenses. Most important, apps designed with the tools Apple and Google intended developers to work with achieve a certain level of stability, scalability and unmatched user experience.
DTE Energy, which provides energy to some 2.1 million customers in Southeast Michigan, recently deployed a successful customer mobile app. Because DTE wanted to create an app that was as helpful and user-friendly as possible, the resulting mobile app has enhanced customer satisfaction. DTE’s experience highlights a few more pointers for energy companies and utilities that want to make the same kind of move:
Understand your audience. Know who will be using the app, and make design and functionality decisions accordingly. If you primarily serve residential customers, your app might look and feel different than an app designed to address commercial needs.
Keep it simple. Power outage reporting and bill payment are the functions customers request most. Energy companies that can perfect those two tools likely will find themselves ahead. Power companies and customers both benefit when apps are simple and streamlined for time and convenience.
Maintain perspective. Creating an app takes significant time and resources. It demands buy-in, both literally and figuratively. A quality app will be an essential tool that will be expected, if not demanded, by customers. Mobile is not just the future; it is the present and already one of the most important customer touch points.
Prioritize service. Every customer touch point should have some positive feeling attached. Your app, which is literally in the hands of the customer, is the best way to ensure this happens. Creating a positive connection with customers through a mobile app goes a long way toward establishing a positive brand image by extension. Like Domino’s Pizza, which consistently finds that customers who order pizza through the Domino’s app have a better experience and more positive view of the brand, DTE has found that customers who use its app have a more favorable opinion of DTE.
Dan Ward is co-founder of Detroit Labs, a Detroit-based mobile development company and maker of iPhone, iPad, Android and vehicle apps. The firm has partnered with national brands such as Domino’s Pizza, Chevy and DTE Energy to create apps. Visit www.detroitlabs.com.