By Thomas Schutz, SVP General Manager of Experian QAS
Deregulation has caused competition in the utility space to grow over the years. Private and public utilities now fight for market share, as customers are not limited to a single provider.
While securing new customers is a battle unto itself, keeping customers once they have come on board is another challenge. With a high cost of installation for each new customer, it is important for utilities to maintain accounts for as long as possible in order see a return on investment. Businesses have to become savvier in order to preserve a month over month renewal.
Securing a continued renewal stream requires a superior level of customer service. While customer service has always been a critical component of any utility offering, it is becoming more and more important with the advent of social media.
Today’s customers speak directly to each other more than ever, and if one customer has a bad experience, they are likely to share that information with others. Utilities therefore need to provide a positive experience whenever possible.
One element related to customer service and often overlooked is the quality of customer contact data. Contact data affects a utility’s ability to communicate with customers and meet service level requirements.
By ensuring the accuracy of this data, utilities can be certain that communications reach the intended recipient and that customer expectations are being met. Accurate contact data also enables utilities to significantly reduce bottom-line expenses.
The secret to message delivery
If there is one thing utilities do constantly, it is communicate with their customers. Customers receive a myriad of communications every month, from bills to marketing promotions, dunning notices and email reminders. But are these communications getting to the right place?
The USPS estimates that about 5 percent of all mail in the U.S. is undeliverable as addressed. This means that if just 5 percent of utility-related mail is sent to the wrong place, thousands of customers might not receive communications.
These communications are a core part of business operations. Every time a letter cannot be delivered, the utility misses an opportunity to provide a positive customer experience. But more importantly, when mail is not delivered, utilities may not receive payment for services supplied.
This can result in a customer call to a customer service agent or even a service disconnect. Both of these outcomes are costly for the utility.
Many utilities feel that they have accurate address data because they have the physical location at which service is being provided. But sometimes the service address is not the same as the mailing address.
Customers may have vacation homes or PO boxes. Bills and communications must be sent to the right address so that the customer can take the appropriate action required.
Because of this confidence in physical service addresses, many utilities do not have a process in place to handle returned mail or track the delivery of communications. Further, many utilities choose to do nothing with returned mail information, because they are simply unable to handle the volume.
Utilities should monitor email bounce back rates and returned mail numbers to identify incorrect contact details in their database. That way, they can correct information by engaging with the customer or utilizing a third party database. This prevents problems from continuing to occur – and continuing to waste valuable dollars.
Enhancing customer service
Service level agreements are essential to utility operations. SLAs dictate when an on-site visit should take place, or when a customer should receive their bill. While these agreements serve as guidelines, many customers expect a higher level of service.
When it comes to bills, invoices are often mailed out to customers on a set day through the postal service. However, if there is a problem with an address, it could take days before the bill is returned. At that point, some utilities may re-issue the letter and send it back out to the customer. However, others do not have a process in place to handle the returned bills, so the customer may never be issued a bill.
At the very least, a returned bill will delay payment. More serious consequences occur when a utility assumes that the customer was not financially able to pay their bill and disconnects service — when in fact that customer may not have received the invoice.
Customer disconnects are expensive and time consuming for a utility. If service is disconnected in error, it can be very damaging to the customer relationship, as well as causing a potential breech of compliance if the utility is government-regulated.
Service calls are very costly for utilities and rely heavily on address information. Employees are paid for travel time as well as time on site to repair service. This is part of the reason that customer service representatives try to triage information and fix problems on the phone whenever possible.
Once an on-site visit is deemed necessary, service workers are dispatched to a given location. If they are given the wrong address, a customer may go to the wrong location.
Customers frequently stay home from work to receive on-site visits. If an appointment is missed, the customer not only continues to be without service, but they may have lost valuable time at their own job. Not meeting customer expectations is one of the fastest ways for a customer to discontinue service, especially when it comes to costing them time and money.
By ensuring the accuracy of contact data, utilities can be confident in the delivery of communications and efficiency of on-site service visit locations. Improving both of these processes allows utilities to reduce expenses.
To retain customers, utilities must provide a superior level of customer service. However, excellent customer service is expensive to maintain and could ultimately reduce a company’s profits if not managed properly. Striking the balance between saving bottom-line costs and providing superior service is important. One way of achieving this goal is through collection of accurate data at the point of capture.
By capturing accurate data, utilities can ensure that communications are received and customer expectations are met, but they can also improve staff efficiency. Accurate contact data means lower amounts of returned mail and fewer incorrect service calls.
In turn, those reductions decrease the amount of re-work required to process returned mail and secondary visit time for staff members who are initially deployed to the wrong site because of an address error. These efficiencies ultimately reduce costs while enabling better customer service.
Collecting accurate data effortlessly
Collecting accurate data before it enters business processes can seem like a challenging task, but it can be simple if the proper steps are taken:
Understand your data — know what information is most important to your database and where common errors occur. Customer contact information is crucial to utility operations and service.
Figure out which errors are most common in your database. Are staff members typing in ZIP codes incorrectly or leaving off apartment numbers? If utilities have a better understanding of their customer data, they can make smarter choices when selecting software solutions, leading to a stronger return on investment.
Clean existing data — utilities can clean existing data based on common data errors. Missing contact data can be augmented through 3rd party processing or cleaned with a back-end batch type tool.
Verify data entry at all points of capture — one best practice is to put a verification process in place that will verify data during account opening. This will prevent staff members from making common data entry errors and ensure that a service address and mailing address is collected for each account.
Data quality expert David Loshin of Knowledge Integrity, Inc. states “No matter the industry, any organization seeking to grow revenue, increase productivity, and improve customer service must consider the dependence of these objectives on high quality information.”
By collecting accurate contact data for all customers at the point of entry, utilities can enhance customer service and reduce bottom line costs. This will ultimately provide the utility with an advantage over competitors, and help in maintaining long-term customer relationships.