Energy providers are no longer on their own in the quest to keep pace with consumers’ “instant everything” expectations. Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to change the customer service paradigm.
Energy consumers’ expectations have become liquid–flowing like water across the experiences they have with all their providers in multiple industries. They want their needs met and their questions answered instantly, preferably while simultaneously doing other tasks. For their part, energy providers appreciate speed too. They want to drive efficiency and accuracy at a lower cost–without impacting customer experience. Traditionally, consumers’ and providers’ goals have been at odds. That’s now changing thanks to the latest developments in digital technologies, including digital agents, powered by AI.
Defining artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is a loosely applied term that covers a broad range of technologies at varying levels of maturity, from chatbots to virtual/digital assistants. Chatbots are at the lower end of the scale. Chatbots follow a script and provide responses to specific inquiries, carrying out many of the functions of a mobile app or website. They are highly cost effective and can be deployed quickly across multiple platforms and interactions.
Consumers, however, want to engage by voice, and that means doing so in their own language through natural language processing with the support of additional intelligence from algorithms, machine learning or deep learning. A consumer asking why his or her year-end bill is so high, for instance, might trigger a process in billing inquiry and the release of some data about the consumer’s energy profile versus actual consumption, possibly accompanied by a recommendation for how to reduce energy consumption or change the terms of the contract.
Recognizing a voice or a visual image brings us into the realm of AI. Digital assistants employing AI are fueled by analytics but are also able to learn and train themselves. They can recognize not just faces and voices but also human emotions and facial expressions.
An energy provider faced with a high volume of repetitive inquiries requiring simple manual intervention may decide to automate these steps, by adding robotization. The benefits to energy providers of introducing digital agents can be significant, including cost saving, revenue generation and improved customer satisfaction.
Our New Energy Consumer research confirmed that energy consumers have a big appetite for digital agents with a large majority (88 percent) of consumers saying they are ready to use a digital agent. The key factors influencing adoption are that the digital agent be easy to use (59 percent), available on a 24/7 basis (57 percent) and able to resolve requests quickly (57 percent). And, while the research showed that consumers are receptive to using digital channels for many purposes, they are even more receptive to using digital agents, with 76 percent saying they would use such agents for learning about new products and services, 74 percent for changing their personal information, and 74 percent for receiving and/or paying bills. Consumers were also interested in using digital agents to activate or deactivate service, report or get information about an outage, and sign up for new products and services (68 percent for all three).
Delivering value for energy providers
Energy providers’ interest in digital agents is also high. In our 2017 Technology Vision survey of utility executives, 37 percent of respondents indicated they will be investing extensively in embedded AI-related technologies over the next three years. And leading energy providers have begun to integrate digital agents into their service offerings.
The UK’s EDF Energy, serving approximately 5 million business and residential consumers with electricity or gas, uses Amazon’s Alexa as a service channel, helping consumers in areas such as account balance inquiries, learning next payment dates and submitting meter readings. When consumers install the EDF Energy “Skill” on their Alexa-enabled device, they can manage their energy accounts by using just their voice. The solution delivers an easy, fast interface that is available 24/7, meeting all three of consumers’ top adoption factors.
Digital agents present energy providers with an opportunity to forge digital connections with their customers and, in the process, open doors to potential new revenue sources. Basic transactions, such as billing, balance inquiries and conveying information about new products are particularly well-suited to service by digital agents. As digital agents become more sophisticated and easier to use, they will lend themselves to more complex transactions and create new ways for energy providers to lower costs, increase loyalty and generate new revenues.
Launching the AI journey
Energy providers exploring digital options should:
1) Gather knowledge. Providers should familiarize themselves with how digital agents–ranging from simple chatbots to highly sophisticated digital concierges–are being used today, not just in the utility industry but in other sectors such as online retailing. It is important to know not just what is happening now but what is likely to happen tomorrow, such as digital agents with self-learning capabilities that leverage customer data to offer tailored services or make personalized suggestions in real time.
2) Provide personality. Experience from early adopters has shown that giving a digital agent a personality is critical. Personality, tone of voice and the styling of the interface are all elements that require thinking and testing with the target audience.
3) Run pilots. To create interactions that are as efficient and painless as possible, run pilots alongside experienced human agents so that they can train the digital agents, handle more complicated scenarios and fine-tune before large-scale implementation.
4) Determine best applications. Digital agents should be positioned as a leading tool within the overall customer experience. A service design process helps in understanding the customer experience across different channels and in identifying high-potential areas for the use of digital agents.
5) Ensure seamlessness. Confirming that simple interactions and tasks are completed seamlessly is critical. The digital agent should be integrated smoothly into the application landscape and into mobile and web services.
Automation and digital agent technologies are moving fast and can, we believe, have a major impact on how energy providers connect with their customers. Providers that act now to integrate digital agents into the customer experience can address rising customer expectations while creating a foundation for future service offerings.
About the author: Tony Masella, Managing Director, Energy Retail and Customer Service (ER&CS), Accenture. He is Accenture’s Energy Retail and Customer Service (ER&CS) managing director. Masella also leads Accenture’s multiyear New Energy Consumer Global Research and Thought Leadership Program.
 Amazon Echo voice controlled energy, EDF Energy, www.edfenergy.com.