Improving the Customer Experience Through Self-Service

by Cynthia White, PRTM Management Consultants

Pragmatic executives often remain skeptical about new industry trends until they see the concepts implemented successfully elsewhere. Although customer self-service is an emerging trend in the utility industry, it is not new to consumers; other industries have been adopting it since the mid-1990s.

Utility executives should not delay—customers expect self-service, and self-service strategies can lower the costs of delivering high-quality service.

During the past 10 years, consumer-focused businesses have developed a robust suite of options to help consumers engage with them on the consumers’ own terms. Consumers, looking for the most efficient way to conduct business, have gravitated toward self-service options and expect companies to provide easy, quick ways to interact.

Until recently, consumers did not hold utilities to the same customer service standards they held other businesses. As environmental concerns and energy use increase, so does utility visibility in customers’ lives. This increased focus on energy presents an opportunity to delight customers with better customer experiences through self-service options.

Most utilities have not kept pace with self-service technologies and customers’ changing expectations. If not addressed quickly, the gap between expectations and experience will grow further. To complete this transition effectively and efficiently, utilities must better understand customer needs, analyze the business benefits of moving to self-service and develop a pragmatic implementation plan that builds sustainable self-service.

Who Influences Your Customers?

Consumers are eager to use self-service when it provides a better experience. The definition of -better is subjective and personal for each customer. It often means more efficient and effective, but it can also mean more private, controlled, convenient or pleasant.

Self-service enables us to accelerate our experience, achieve exactly what we want, avoid human interaction and conduct business whenever we choose, through whichever channel we choose.

Customers desire better alternatives as a result of receiving services that did not fully meet their needs. Your customers are conditioned to expect high levels of service and self-service in other service providers with whom they interact, including online retailers, travel providers, financial institutions, mobile phone carriers, medical service providers and cable television providers.

Conclusion 1: Understand Your Customers

It is said so often, it sounds trite: Understand your customers. But what does it mean? Understand their reality, what influences them, the lens through which they view you, and their needs. You can only create a satisfying customer experience if you know what satisfies them.

What Do Your Customers Expect Now?

Thanks to the technology revolution, the option for 24/7 service and access to data anywhere, anytime, consumers have pressured service providers to increase self-service options. As a result, many service providers deliver—and consumers have come to expect—the following self-service qualities and functionalities:

Qualities of good self-service:

  • Easy to understand
  • Easy-to-perform tasks
  • More efficient transactions
  • High-quality information
  • Available whenever, wherever
  • Reliable, accurate
  • Consistent information regardless of channel
  • Repeatable
  • Personal

Functionality available via self-service:

  • Gather information
  • Compare products
  • Purchase products
  • Request assistance
  • Find contact information
  • Access and update account information
  • Configure online experience
  • Set communication preferences
  • Sign up for newsletters or promotions
  • Change service packages

Conclusion 2: Customers Expect Robust Self-Service Options

Consumers interact with multiple vendors each day and manage complex lives. Many industries have responded with robust self-service options. Customers perceive companies without these options as less customer-friendly.

What Do Utilities Deliver Today?

In general, utilities have fallen behind other industries in four areas related to self-service: the array of transactions available in self-service, an over-reliance on phone-based self-service, the execution of existing self-service options and the internal process capability to support self-service.

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Array of transactions available. Utilities have generally used a spot approach to implement self-service. Most utility Web sites feature an assortment of self-service functions that lack basic tasks customers need to manage their accounts. For example, one site allows bill payment but not new-service enrollment. Another allows customers to add programs and services but not pay bills.

Although these implementations make sense to utilities, they confuse and frustrate customers who expect more. Without a full suite of self-service offerings that provide the most basic functionality throughout the customer life cycle, customers default to call centers because they can meet all of their needs with one interaction.

Over-reliance on phone-based self-service. Utilities have traditionally channeled customer transactions to call centers. Interactive phone systems have been widely adopted to relieve pressure on call centers and have developed into strong self-service channels. Many utilities have continued to focus on the self-service phone channel at the expense of Web self-service, but it fuels a perception that utilities are out-of-touch with customers’ needs. Interactive phone systems are here to stay, but the Web should be developed as the primary self-service channel because it allows for more robust interaction, protects call centers from misdirected calls and has a lower cost to serve.

Quality in execution. Utilities have underinvested in self-service, specifically Web presence, and the quality of the customer experience reflects it. As a primary channel, self-service requires support by design teams, customer-experience monitoring, quality assurance, governance and feature portfolio management to succeed—similar to the infrastructure built for call centers.

Internal process capability. Good self-service is more efficient and less costly for all involved, but utilities are often deterred by internal process complexity and regulatory compliance concerns. Utilities may look to online banking for inspiration that self-service processes can support highly regulated, personalized and confidential transactions.

Conclusion 3: Utilities Fall Short in Self-Service

Utilities provide a limited self-service experience compared with other consumer brands. Although many utilities provide self-service options to customers today, shortcomings in execution and inconsistencies in available self-service functionality diminish the customer experience.

How Can We Benefit From Self-Service?

Utilities and customers alike can benefit from effective self-service:

Cost savings. Utilities implementing effective self-service can expect a 10 to 20 percent reduction in call center volume and cost. Utilities can redeploy these savings to new customer service initiatives.

Improved customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is important to more than just customers; regulators, ratepayer committees and the press also pay attention. Enabling customers to meet their needs easily and conveniently leads to tangible improvements in customer-satisfaction scores.

Gains in employee satisfaction. Self-service also improves call center job satisfaction. Although initial employee impressions can frequently be negative, as more routine and repetitive transactions shift to the Web, call center employees focus on more interesting and varied transactions. This boosts morale, productivity and retention.

Improved customer interaction. To reduce costs and conserve resources, consumers manage their energy use more actively. Self-service helps utilities create a two-way dialogue with customers and allows call centers to focus on more complex, higher-value issues with the extra capacity.

Greater operational efficiencies. In addition to greater call center efficiency, developing a strong self-service culture helps streamline and standardize customer-service transactions, leading to reductions in labor-intensive processes, printing and mailing costs and back-office overhead.

Conclusion 4: Self-Service is Good.

Investing in robust self-service options improves the customer experience and allows a company to redeploy resources, streamline processes and more efficiently manage customer operations.

Getting Started

-Great! Great! you say. -But how do we do it? Start by developing a sustainable self-service strategy, focusing on the why, what, and how:

Business perspective (why). Customer-experience improve-ments require solid business rationale to create the kind of change that will benefit customers and be sustainable. Determine how much you will improve customer satisfaction, reduce costs and support future goals to justify the investment.

Customer perspective (what). The most frequently forgotten component of business strategies is the customer perspective—what they need, what they currently experience, how they view their relationships with you and how you compare with their other vendors. A successful strategy considers the customer lifecycle and customers’ unmet needs and addresses them through self-service.

Operational perspective (how). Sustaining a self-service strategy and continually improving the customer experience puts pressure on the operational strategy of the company. It is essential to maintain an approach that can flex as technologies, consumers and processes change and grow.

Call to Action: Focus on a Sustainable Strategy

Balancing business, customer and operational needs to design your self-service approach will provide the greatest long-term benefit for your company and your growing, changing customer base. These three perspectives determine your company’s vision for a self-service transformation.

Customer self-service is an opportunity to enhance customer relationships, deliver new, innovative services and differentiate through exemplary customer experiences. Other industries have provided a template for success. It’s time for utilities to reap the rewards.

The author thanks Jan Nicholas, manager at PRTM, for his significant contribution to this article.


Cynthia White is a principal at PRTM Management Consultants and a leader in its Customer Experience Innovation practice. She has more than 14 years experience researching, analyzing and designing customer-centric strategies for services, products and operations across multiple industries including energy, software, telecom, CPG, health care, travel and government. E-mail her at

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