Help yourself: Learn what customers think about self-service tools

by Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

OK, ‘fess up: Haven’t you grumbled or, at least, sighed loudly at the melodious voice guiding you through a long, involved interactive voice response (IVR) system? Haven’t you — just once — failed to hear the option you needed, so you pressed one, then three, then zero, zero, zero in a fit of phone-prompted fury? Take heart. You’re not alone. IVRs rated dead-last in user preferences for self-help options when E SOURCE recently surveyed more than 1,000 utility customers.

E SOURCE is an energy-focused business-intelligence firm, and researchers there have just published their 2008 Self-Service Customer Care Market Research Report.

The research team found that we’re all doing more with self-service options. In fact, the number of Internet users who now pay at least one bill online has reached 51 percent, up from 33 percent in 2004, when E SOURCE last conducted this research. Another 16 percent of IVR users have used such a system to make a payment.

But, increased use of self-service doesn’t mean increased customer satisfaction, the researchers found. “There is still plenty of room for improvement,” says Andrew Heath, E SOURCE’s director of customer satisfaction research.

Help wanted

What people like best when communicating with their utility is direct, face-to-face contact, Heath says. The self-service option they like least is the IVR system. “In between is on-the-phone communication, which rates just below in-person communication. Then, you have contact through the web site and email,” in that order.

Self-service channels may not be a customer’s first choice, but they certainly are a boon to utilities. “We estimated it costs utilities between $4 and $8 for a call involving a call-center agent,” Heath says. “With the IVR or web site, you’re talking about transactions costing less than $1.”

Still, Heath maintains, not all activities are ideally suited to self-service, and his study looked at which tasks people like to do without an agent’s help. Checking an account balance online is high on the list of handy self-service options. Reporting an outage is a good IVR choice, the research indicates.

“Making a complaint — that’s something people would rather talk to a person about,” Heath notes. “Technology might be able to capture the complaint, respond and give the customer a complaint number, but people want to talk to someone to make sure the complaint is understood.” According to him, folks may wonder: “Why write an email that might not get read or leave a voice mail that may never be heard?”

Setting up new service is an activity that can be handled via self-service channels, but it’s tricky, Heath adds. “There are an awful lot of questions you might need to ask customers,” he explains, and asking them all could lead to one whopper of a web form. “From a customer standpoint, it’s easier to talk to someone.”

The right calls

To make online service initiation less complicated, Heath recommends utilities design the web form to suit the majority of new customers. “Don’t build it for the exceptions,” he warns, but do ask questions that can identify the exceptional customers upfront. Then, direct those customers to a customer-service representative.

Don’t try to trick self-service customers into thinking they’re having a conversation, either. According to Heath’s research, more than 75 percent of customers surveyed have experienced both speech-recognition and touch-tone systems. Customers prefer touch-tone systems by a two-to-one margin.

And, think about on-hold messages. Last year, Kimberly King, founder and president of InterWeave, a customer-service consultancy, had her team make “mystery shopper” calls to 105 U.S. electric utilities. That effort resulted in “The Power of Wow in U.S. Utility Contact Centers,” a report offered via CD.

According to King, none of the municipal utilities her people called made good use of on-hold time by delivering marketing information. Investor-owned utilities didn’t fair much better. Only 18.1 percent of IOUs offered marketing information through the IVR. “We’re excited to serve you… we offer green power… we provide energy-efficient light bulbs… That’s what we were looking for,” she says. “We were on hold a lot. We wanted to hear what a utility could offer us.”

King also maintains that only 6.7 percent of the utilities her team called offered their web site appropriately. In her mind, that means telling customers what they can do online right at the beginning of the call, not at the end. That way, utilities can boost self-service and cut costs by diverting callers away from customer-service representatives.

Plus, utilities can serve that small group of customers who’d prefer not to talk to a CSR. “Some customers want to self-serve,” E SOURCE’s Heath says. “For them, delivering a good self-service function can be a positive thing.”

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 15 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to Utilimetrics News, the monthly publication of Utilimetrics (formerly the Automatic Meter Reading Association).

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