The Key to a Smooth Customer Transition to Digital: Use the Channels Customers Already Use

Most utility companies are still seeking ways to boost digital adoption to improve customer engagement and lower costs. To achieve both goals, companies are increasingly focused on enhancing existing digital communications channels—such as emails, websites and mobile platforms—and considering new channels where consumers are already active.

A McKinsey e-care survey found that almost 45 percent of utility customers would prefer to use digital channels, such as apps or websites, as their primary channel for provider interactions, but just 22 percent currently do so. Furthermore, utility customers are growing more amenable to the idea of engaging their providers through digital communications, such as bills and statements. Chartwell research shows that almost 75 percent of utility customers are generally open to being auto-enrolled in an electronic billing system.

Still, while consumer demand is there, building effective digital strategies has proved challenging for many utility companies as they often don’t consider customer preferences and expectations. To remedy this, utilities must develop a smart approach to the customer transition from print to digital in a way that meets clients’ preferences for how and where they receive communications from a variety of providers. Utilities should let consumers choose how they receive those communications, as well as how they want to connect to their providers through different channels.

Digital Platforms Lead to Savings

The operational benefits of going digital are clear—digital communications can improve routine service requests such as payments, energy use management and outage notifications. Electronic billing and statements save on paper and postage costs, according to a Chartwell survey. The cost to send an eBill went from 16 cents in 2014 to 8 cents in 2017, while the price per paper bill held around 55 cents. That may not seem like a lot, but, for every 100,000 customers, utilities can save approximately $564,000.

Furthermore, electronic billing and statements would likely lead to fewer phone calls, requiring, utilities to employ smaller call center staffs to field common inquiries. Consequently, transitioning to digital communications gets utilities paid faster and, at the same time, reduces their cost of service.

However, it’s important to consider that a significant number of customers still prefer to maintain print correspondence or may not have digital capabilities. An estimated 11 percent of U.S. adults don’t use the internet—a number that has held steady for the past three years. Utility companies will have to maintain operations for paper-based communications with these non-digital consumers, as well as the portion of customers that prefer paper or a mix of paper and digital communications.

Building Your Digital Strategy Around the Customer Journey

For their digital-oriented customers, utilities should focus on establishing a consistent digital customer journey across multiple touchpoints. A strong digital strategy recognizes and ties communications into customers’ established behaviors. Instead of trying to change these behaviors, utility companies should focus on connecting through the digital channels their customers already use.

The digital channels that customers are using are relatively clear; email, SMS messages and multimedia-messaging services, device notifications and social media channels are sure-fire ways to reach them. Rather than isolating digital services on a company website or app, utilities can consider distributing bills through online banking channels, such as eBills, or personal cloud storage channels, like Google Drive or Evernote. They could also send notifications about power outages and restoration through social media.

Utilities providers creating a new mobile app as part of their digital strategy must bear in mind that customer usage typically grows slowly. They can find more immediate success by making their company website more “mobile-friendly” and using it to direct customers to the mobile app.  

What You Say Matters as Much as Where You Say It

It’s not simply about adopting digital mediums for customer communication, but also paying closer attention to what is being communicated and how it is packaged. Utilities that send communications that are clear, concise and directly relevant to their customers will have the best chance for long-term success at reducing payment times and phone-based inquiries.

Notifications should be easy to read and require some form of action or response from the customer. Each action should be as frictionless as possible for the end user, preferably requiring as little as one click. In addition, communications should be adaptive and responsive, adjusting to the size of the end user’s screen.

When it comes to billing, correspondence should adjust to the end user’s needs by covering any or all of four basic and useful metrics. These are (1) how much the customer owes, (2) how they can quickly and easily pay, (3) how their energy use has changed over time (on a monthly or an annual basis) and (4) what steps they can take to lower their costs in the future. The communication should provide this basic information up front, while pointing to more detailed facts and data available on the website. For some insights, utilities may need to leverage third-party data and technology.

Ease Customers Through the Digital Transition

These communications should also serve to facilitate the print-to-digital journey for end users. As the average household receives at least 25 forms of communication each month from a variety of providers, utilities should simplify their enrollment experience by not requiring customers to sign into yet another website and create another user name and password.

One approach to try with existing customers could include sending out print communications alongside enhanced email communications that highlight more personalized information, such as how the customer can save money by restricting certain energy-related activities at more cost-effective times. If customers decide they want to continue receiving the enhanced emails, utilities should compel them to register for electronic delivery to do so.

Utilities could also encourage customers to select one digital channel, and then offer additional channel connections at no extra cost. This way, customers can align utility communications digitally into their priority channel, where they already engage their other service providers. For example, customers who want to centralize all their provider communications onto one location could direct the utility to set up eDelivery on the cloud service they currently use.

Challenges Exist, But Focus on Improvement

As utilities providers take steps to enhance their customer engagement through digital platforms, they should be aware of some potential challenges they may face along the way.

For starters, some utility companies’ billing systems aren’t sufficiently connected to their distribution processes to assemble a comprehensive picture of existing customers and their demographics and preferences—so they’ll need to prioritize data integration upgrades. A small minority will find that limited system designs, or privacy mandates, could restrict some customer service representatives’ access to complete account profiles and information.

And, as mentioned, a portion of customers won’t want to or be able to interact with their utilities through digital channels; an even smaller fraction doesn’t use telephones, and thus must rely solely on paper communications. These customers can’t be compelled to change their behavior, as public service commissions that regulate utilities protect their rights and interests.

Improving communications programs is an ongoing process. To meet ever-changing consumer demands and expectations, companies should create an initial entry or pilot program quickly, develop measurable customer-satisfaction metrics and then improve the program by studying the feedback and iterating on that experience.

Moving amenable customers to digital communications can lead to more impactful communications and improved billing processes. The utilities that take the time to understand customers’ behavior and create an experience that ties to their needs will have the best opportunity to succeed with the transition to digital.

About the author: Rob Krugman, Chief Digital Officer at Broadridge. He leads digital strategy and innovation to ensure banking, telecom, utility, insurance, and healthcare brands are engaging with their customers where consumers already frequent online. By supplementing traditional communication channels with new and emerging digital ways of engaging, companies can improve customer engagement, reduce business costs and make every touchpoint more meaningful. Rob frequently speaks and writes about the future of omni-channel engagement, consumer preferences, identity management and brand digitization strategies.


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