Keeping up With the Amazons: How Data Analytics can Improve Utility Customer Experience

By Micah DeHenau, Vertex

A service outage hits. A high bill is delivered. Customers flood the call center with a deluge of questions and complaints. Costs rise, customers are unhappy.

What would happen if each of those calls could actually yield valuable data? Through speech analytics technology utilities can turn customer calls into a treasure trove of usable data by tracking sentiment, word choice and overall satisfaction. While customers might call in for a specific reason, they usually bring up a number of topics on a single call. Truly understanding and responding to the voice of the customer will improve the customer experience when he or she does call, but also will help reduce the number of calls when the next outage or high bill hits.

Cutting-edge speech and predictive analytics, part of the secret recipe that makes companies like Amazon and Netflix so successful, can make utilities more customer friendly and, in turn, improve the bottom line. Utilities have unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to the customer experience.

Utilities want to reduce call volumes, increase self-service, reduce bad debt, ensure regulatory compliance and, of course, make their customers happier. The question is “how?”

Unlock Customer Insights Hidden in your Data With Speech and Predictive Analytics

Utilities have recognized that analytics are an integral part of their business, particularly for issues like load forecasting and grid management. According to the Utility Analytics Institute, in North America utility spending on data analytics is expected to grow 29 percent year over year, totaling more than $2 billion in 2016. Worldwide, the expected investment is staggering, with Pike Research indicating that cumulative spending on smart grid data analytics alone will reach approximately $34 billion by 2020.

But now, more customer-oriented analytics are available to utilities of all sizes, supporting the increased focus on customer experience. Speech analytics allows utilities to unlock data from conversations. Utilities can now analyze everything the customer talked about, everything the agent talked about, and how the agent represented the utility in that interaction and adhered to corporate policies on how to speak with customers. Correlations can be drawn from a conversation. If certain things are said by an agent, how will the customer respond and how can that information be used to improve overall call center performance and customer satisfaction?

Speech analytics is used extensively in retail, telecom and other industries to extract deeper meaning from every customer interaction and develop strategies based on the insights gained. Utilities are now beginning to adopt the technology and uncover value that was previously hidden in their calls.

Predictive analytics can determine customer behavior and help utilities answer questions, such as which customers are likely to enroll in self-service, sign-up for paperless billing, be most interested in energy efficiency and conservation initiatives and pay their bills once in arrears. By harnessing data to predict customer behavior, utilities capitalize on events before they happen.

How Well can you Understand your Customer?

The power of predictive analytics has been harnessed by leading consumer-facing companies to help them know what their customers want. For example, according to Netflix, 75 percent of the content consumed by customers is actually suggested or recommended, suggesting that Netflix knows its customers better than they know themselves.

Amazon, likewise, uses predictive analytics to anticipate its customers’ purchases, developing an algorithm that analyzes shopping patterns and behaviors to ship products to regional facilities before customers even buy them. Packages are then on their way as soon as a customer hits the “place your order” button.

The result is that companies like Netflix and Amazon consistently rank high in customer satisfaction and loyalty, even in a highly competitive marketplace. In fact, according to the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index’s retail sector report, Netflix has a customer satisfaction score of 79 percent.

Utilities, by contrast, historically had little incentive to innovate in the same way. Utility customers are, however, also Netflix and Amazon customers. They expect a similar level of customer experience from their utility. It can be difficult to make a quick and easy business case for an investment in analytics but the savings can add up by reducing the number of calls into the call center, providing electronic bills instead of mailing paper ones, and reducing average handle time as well as increasing first-call resolution.

Happier customers translate to a better bottom line. In a Bloomberg Businessweek research report, it was revealed that process companies in the utilities and energy and resources sectors lead the pack of global industries in expected big data investment returns, with utilities being able to expect a 73 percent return in 2013.

Even in the case of an outage, when customers are the unhappiest, analytics provides opportunity. Many of those customers could have been channeled to a website or automated phone system to receive the answers they want, heading off calls before they’re ever made and providing more information faster to more customers than an agent could on the phone. Yet a recent 2014 study by Booz Allen found that just 26 percent of utilities have a mobile app, reflecting the ongoing hesitancy of many utilities to embrace technology that can dramatically impact their bottom lines.

Analytics as a Service Reduces Resource Expenditure

Utilities have rightly been concerned with the cost and time involved to implement new technology like advanced analytics, as well as the skills needed to operate them. In the past, advanced analytics was a costly process that could take years rather than months to implement, diverting attention away from the core business or serving customers.

Today’s technology, however, can be up, running and delivering insight in as little as a couple of months. Standing up an organization’s analytics capabilities can be accomplished on a time- and cost-efficient basis, particularly with analytics as a service. Instead of having to build and support a team that understands and implements analytics, organizations can rent them, thereby lowering the cost of entry. This type of analytics on demand leaves utilities the ability to focus on their customers.

The return on investment (ROI) is there. Analytics can create a highly effective phone call that can prevent sending a technician to a customer’s location to root out a problem. Its results are seen when a customer’s needs are anticipated by automated voice prompts on the telephone or through web interaction, preventing the need for a live agent conversation. Moving the needle even slightly can result in a significant ROI and improved customer experience.

For utilities dealing with an ever-increasing influx of data, the sheer amount and variety of information can either be overwhelming or overlooked. Analytics tools and services provide a way to spin that raw data into a golden opportunity.


For the last eight years, Micah DeHenau has managed advanced analytics teams and consulting engagements in numerous industries and has been focused in utilities for the last five. At Vertex, DeHenau currently oversees a team of senior analytics practitioners, business intelligence specialists, Ph.D. statisticians and analytics value engineers. Prior to Vertex, he developed and delivered analytically driven projects and programs for many Fortune 500 companies including AT&T and Comcast.

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