Transforming Utility Customer Service: Bots and their Roles

When I suggested a chatbot, such as Alexa or Google Assistant, for my Mom’s upcoming 95th birthday, I was met with skepticism from both my siblings.

But now, after six months, they enthusiastically support the technology. The chatbot has empowered our Mom, whose hearing and sight are failing. Instead of needing to wait for assistance to turn on the news, listen to music, or be reminded of the upcoming bingo game, Mom now simply talks to Alexa.

A bot is software enabled with artificial intelligence (AI) designed to perform a series of tasks on its own or with minimal human intervention. In the utility space, two specific types of bots are being deployed, Chatbots and robotic process automation bots (RPA.) At the most recent 2018 CS Week Conference, bots were a popular topic. Workshops described how bots are being used in utility customer service, service providers in the exhibit hall detailed how bots can be implemented, and during networking attendees were often overheard talking about the power of bots. The reason for the attention is the untapped potential for bots to enhance the customers’ experience and optimize customer operations.

In this series of articles, I am going to explore the world of bots as it relates to utilities and specifically to serving customers. In addition to providing basic information about chat bots and RPA, I will explore the benefits of these tools for the utility and for customers; the considerations from a technology, people and process perspective of introducing these tools; and how utilities are using these technologies today to provide business value.  

Let’s start by exploring and understanding some basics around chatbots and robotic process automation.

Chatbots

Accenture, in its white paper on Chatbots in Customer Service, defines a chatbot as “Ëœa computer program you can talk to, through messaging apps, chat windows or increasingly by voice.’ Command-based chatbots are simpler to develop and implement.  These types of bots are good for customer support.  A more complex type of chatbot is conversational, such as my Mom’s Alexa. Conversational bots require more advanced artificial intelligence, along with natural language processing.

If Facebook Messenger is a predictor, chatbot growth is exponential. Facebook Messenger introduced a chatbot application program interface (API) in April 2016. In less than six months, Messenger announced that it had over 30,000 chatbots. Today, Facebook messenger chatbots number 300.000.

Chatbots are best used for customer requests that are frequent and where the answers are known. Consider, for example, the frequently asked question (FAQs) sections companies include in online support. Chatbots can provide the FAQ service, but at the moment a customer needs the service, and contextually where the consumer is at within the web experience.

But FAQs are just the tip of the iceberg in regard to how chatbots can impact customer service. More sophisticated chatbots can converse with customers and detect when customers need the assistance of a human agent. This allows customer service professionals to be dedicated to the more complex inquires, with the chatbot siphoning off the easy to process ones.

Robotic Process Automation Bots

Another area of robotics that is gaining a lot of attention and investment by utilities is the area of robotic process automation (RPA). PA Consulting Group defines RPA Bots as ones which “Ëœmimic how a user would interact with an application utilizing the same User Interface (UI) as a human.’   These Bots can execute high volumes of standardized, rules-based, repetitive tasks.  Utility customer service leaders, who always are looking for ways to gain efficiency, are very excited about RPA.  The very nature of back-office utility customer service work is work that is repetitive, prone to errors, and labor intensive. Processing billing exceptions is just one of many examples of repetitive, labor intensive work.

The growth in RPA is also very rapid, with many utilities architecting business strategies and investment to capitalize on this technology.  These companies are finding that in addition to reducing costs, RPAs decrease overall cycle times because the RPA not only performs the tasks faster than a person, but they can operate constantly, 24 by 7.  The RPAs allow for enhanced monitoring and recording, so a clear audit trail is created.

Overall, the buzz about Bots in the utility industry is growing.  There are now many utilities that can share examples of chatbots and RPA bots in production and providing benefits.  With utilities always challenged to improve the customer experience while reducing costs, Bots are a natural fit to deliver on this core objective.

About the author: Penni McLean-Conner is chief customer officer at Eversource Energy, the largest energy delivery company in New England. She serves on several boards, including the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

 

 

 

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