By Jeff Camp, TXU Energy, and Dave Parkinson, Interactions LLC
In Texas, where there is a competitive retail electricity market, 85 percent of consumers can choose their service provider from a group of more than 50 companies. The competition is steep, but TXU Energy is the largest retail electricity provider in Texas, powering more Texans than any other retailer in the state. This has been achieved by offering a variety of innovative energy efficiency products and programs, competitively priced service plans, and great customer service. Customer service, in particular, is central to the success of TXU Energy.
Telephone support is a primary service channel for TXU Energy customers. More than 8.5 million customer service calls are received each year. They range from simple requests, such as reporting an outage or making a payment, to more complex tasks, like selecting service plans, transferring service or resolving a billing issue.
While TXU Energy had a good touch-tone, menu-based system in place, company leaders recognized that new technologies made an even better customer experience possible. With that in mind, the company partnered with Franklin, Massachusetts-based Interactions to create IVY, the first and only full natural language virtual assistant IVR system in the Texas utility market. Just one year after deployment, IVY reached an important milestone: It began resolving more calls than all of TXU Energy’s phone-based agents.
IVY: The new Voice of TXU Energy
IVY is not just a creatively branded interface. It’s a highly conversational customer care virtual assistant capable of handling complex but repetitive activities, just like a live agent.
IVY does not force customers to use rigid voice prompts or to put themselves in predetermined boxes requiring them to select 1, 2 or 3. It simply asks, “How may I help you?” and allows customers to make requests in their natural speech patterns. Because it is a virtual assistant rather than a menu-based IVR system, it can handle a broader scope of responsibilities.
Among its expanded key features, IVY is able to authenticate accounts, retrieve balances, accept payments, make payment arrangements and enroll customers in programs like TXU Energy Average Monthly Billing. It can also help customers sign up for AutoPay, toggle between languages in real time; update contact information, reconnect service related to a disconnection for non-payment, accept and provide information on service outages, and relay updates on service orders.
TXU’s Customers Embrace IVY
The response to IVY by TXU Energy’s customers has been tremendous. In 2013, the legacy solution serviced approximately 3.4 million calls. In 2014, following the introduction of IVY, that number jumped to more than 4.5 million calls. By the end of second quarter 2015, IVY was resolving more calls than TXU Energy’s live agents.
Not only does the system allow for a wider array of self-service tasks to be completed, but it also has reduced the time it takes to complete self-service tasks by 35 percent compared to the legacy system. This is possible because of IVY’s responsive and conversational nature, which is capable of understanding open-ended sentences, grammatically incorrect statements and requests made even when there is background noise.
IVY eliminates another common frustration that plagues customers. For calls that require an agent, it provides a seamless handoff. This allows the agent to know who the customer is immediately and where they were in the dialogue, saving the customer from the hassle of sharing their information again and reducing agent-handle time.
Most encouraging: TXU Energy has boosted its CSAT (customer satisfaction) score by 11 percentage points since the deployment of IVY from a respectable 82 percent through the prior IVR system to an impressive 93 percent with virtual assistant IVY.
Building the Business Case for new Technology
TXU Energy reached the projected three- to five-month business-case run rate at an accelerated pace of only 40 days and agents are also no longer burdened with low-level, repetitive activities.
Even though the system is now resolving more calls than TXU Energy’s live agents, the adoption rate is still increasing. IVY will never replace TXU Energy’s agents; that isn’t the goal. IVY still triages the most important calls to the agents, who are able to provide a more personalized, attentive, concierge level of service.
Many customers prefer to leverage self-service channels to quickly and easily get work done on their own terms. The problem is many menu-based IVR systems simply don’t facilitate the freedom needed to achieve this goal.
Times have changed and more businesses, whether it be in the Texas utility market or elsewhere, are leveraging customer service as an important differentiator. The implementation of virtual assistant technology not only offers TXU Energy customers quicker and easier self-service options, but it has real, tangible business benefits that are being felt across the call center operation, as well.
Jeff Camp is vice president of contact center operations at TXU Energy and Dave Parkinson is chief operations officer at Interactions LLC