five trends defining the emerging utility call center

Len Tanner, Alliance Data Systems

The following call center trends offer significant opportunities for faster service, more personalized customer communications, internal performance analysis and management, cost savings and continuing process improvement.

1. performance optimization

A new breed of analytical business intelligence tools combines the best of productivity and quality systems of the past 30 years to allow sharing of information across the organization. Dr. Jon Anton, director of benchmark research for Benchmark Portal, states that these user—intuitive data analytics “are making it more feasible for utility executives to manage their call centers by the numbers.” Capabilities such as detailed business intelligence allow utilities to understand their customers better, thereby enhancing service. Additionally, the ability to drill down to the individual agent level helps managers make better decisions about each agent’s performance as well as overall call center results. When all of these performance management systems converge, the results are powerful.

2. automated event—based customer notification

Consumers accustomed to instant messaging and the immediacy of the Internet respond positively to automated, yet personalized, calls to notify them of emergencies, repair status, past due payments and service appointments. Interactive features allow customers to select responses or speak directly to an agent. When used for collections calls, this tool can lower contact costs by more than 50 percent, and generate payments from more than 80 percent of contacted customers within seven days. The service provider manages the service; so there is no drain on daily call center operations.

3. benchmarking and certification

Submitting to a benchmarking and certification process provides an impartial, expert assessment of how your call center stacks up against the best of the best. Additionally, management can use the benchmarking data to drive improvement initiatives where they are most needed. A positive outcome can also yield valuable information for rate—making applications and public relations communications.

4. voice recognition

There is a strong case for utilities to add voice recognition technology to their customer self—service options. Customers may have an increased comfort level when using speech to communicate their needs via phone, instead of the push button options offered by traditional interactive voice response and recognition (IVR) systems. In addition to making voice response an option, utilities are finding more and more self—serve options to offer their customers. It is no longer enough to offer simple voice response unit (VRU) options such as last payment received. Customers are demanding more sophisticated options–for instance, the ability to pay by credit card, make payment arrangements, and schedule service.

In their report titled “Speech—enabled Customer Service Applications in the Utility Industry,” Chartwell, an industry market research firm, estimates that approximately 17 percent of utilities offer some level of speech or voice—enabled IVR. Currently, only a fraction of those utilities “are on the cutting edge with a full menu of natural language service options, which brings to bear the conversational aspects of speech technology that vendors say holds the promise of the future.” According to Dr. Jon Anton, “Voice—recognition enabled IVR is expected to increase the use of utility self—service by over 25 percent.”

5. IP—based call centers

IP, or Internet protocol, which enables voice communications via an Internet connection, has been hyped as the next great mode of communication. For the typical utility call center, the value will be realized in these areas:

“- smart call routing. IP technology provides an environment in which voice and data networks converge and support advanced skills—based routing, intelligent routing based on call content and agent availability. Every customer contact channel–such as voice, email and web chat–can be managed in a unified way, thus maximizing productivity, minimizing response time and providing a single history of customer interaction.

“- application integration. While many utilities are already focused on integrating their CIS with applications such as outage management and GIS, IP solutions will allow easier integration of legacy and newer applications onto a single platform, eliminating much of the currently required custom integration and the need to maintain duplicate equipment for multi—site call centers.

Utilities that incorporate the trends discussed above will be on the leading edge of providing superior yet cost—contained customer service. Using technology to provide high—touch customer service is not a contradiction in terms. In fact, technology can be the impetus that makes world—class customer service possible.

Tanner is vice president of operations with Alliance Data Systems.

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