by Scott Zimmerman, TeleVox Software Inc.
Finding ways to reduce costs while maintaining good customer service is a chief concern for many utility companies. During the past few years, utilities have started using automated messaging to communicate with customers during power outages, to remind them to pay their bills and to confirm service appointments.
This automated notification process is part of a concept called engagement communications. Utilities throughout the country have found it to be an effective, efficient way to reach many customers in a short time. These calls have the potential to decrease the volume of inbound calls, to reduce operating costs and to influence customer satisfaction.
Engagement communications technology gives utility customers the option to receive personalized messages via phone call, e-mail or text messaging to determine appropriate response actions and real-time solutions. It’s high tech with a human touch.
Together they create points of engagement with a customer rather than a simple contact. Contact is one-directional while engagement is two-way. Creating these ongoing two-way dialogues fulfills the promise of building better customer relationships and creates a constant feedback loop that gives companies deeper insights into customers’ motivations and needs.
For example, a utility company can use engagement communications to ask customers questions about the types of information they want to receive. If a segment of customers are highly concerned with energy conservation, the utility engages them with energy conservation tips. During hot summer months, customers receive e-mail, text or phone messages reminding them to conserve energy by cooking during later hours or closing blinds during the day. Because these messages are sent how and when customers want to receive them, this approach is meaningful and effective and creates a deeper customer connection.
Similarly, through the two-way dialogue of engagement communications, a utility company has learned that a particular customer leaves his home at 7:30 a.m. for work. Imagine the positive connection the company would make with that customer if it sent him a friendly text message reminder at 7 a.m. to close the blinds, turn off the washer and dryer and turn down the thermostat. The reminder creates a connection and engages the customer to take action.
Debt Collection, Increased Revenues
Steady increases in bad debt continue to challenge the utility industry. Chartwell Inc. has estimated that written-off revenue by North American utilities surpasses $1.7 billion each year. The expense required to recover this debt has become significant, as well. According to Bass & Co., North American utilities spend between $2.90 and $3.01 per customer to collect overdue receivables. Bass & Co. found cases in which utilities paid up to $10 per customer to recover bad debt.
Collection costs have diminished greatly for utilities that have implemented automated messaging. Calls can be delivered for pennies per contact, a fraction of the expense of mailed reminders and manual calls.
Calls are customized to include customer name, time, date, amount due or other information, and they are delivered in completely natural voices. Messages can be sent to delinquent customers at any time of day or early evening to maximize their effectiveness. Each message contains response options, allowing for right-party verification, multiple languages, repeated messages and call transfers. By transferring to a third-party collector, the utility’s call center avoids extra telephone traffic from customers ready to resolve their accounts.
Take Southern Co., for instance. The parent company for 10 subsidiary operating units in the southeastern United States with more than 4 million customers is a prime example of how automated outbound messaging can accelerate collections and increase revenues. Since one of its operating units, Georgia Power, began automating delinquent payment reminder calls, Southern Co. is on track to save some $1.5 million in eliminated disconnects per year.
Outbound calling campaigns also have marked a vast improvement in collecting delinquent payments. Georgia Power averages a cure rate of delinquent payments of more than 60 percent within three days of customer contact. Since automating their customer contact, Georgia Power has experienced a 45 percent increase in promises to pay that are kept.
Georgia Power call centers are reaping the benefits of the system, as well. The 550 employees are spending less time on the phone with customers regarding delinquent bills. This allows representatives to work with customers who have issues requiring more involvement and expertise. Field crews also have seen disconnects shrink from 198,000 per year to 168,000. That’s 30,000 fewer maintenance technicians and trucks sent to terminate service throughout a 57,000-square-mile service territory.
From Skepticism to Buy In
Despite the initial skepticism of some utility experts, customers throughout North America have received automated messaging warmly. Call centers have fielded numerous compliments on their particular messages, and many customers appreciate the friendly reminders to pay their bills. One factor in customers’ acceptance of the automated messages is the nature of the call. Call scripts are recorded by professional voice talent, and specific customer data gives a personal feel to each call. The automated calls easily adapt to nearly any situation and can include right-party verification and options to be transferred to a call center representative.
There are no boundaries for this technology as an essential communication tool for utilities. Utility companies, however, must take these important steps for an effective outcome:
- Deliver only accurate, timely and relevant information to customers,
- Make sure your messages are consistent across all levels of the organization,
- Measure the results of the calls, and
- Survey customers after the calls to gauge satisfaction or identify areas for improvement.
Utilities that leverage technology for customer communications will put less energy and more impact into moving customers from passive to active partners in managing energy consumption and costs.
Scott Zimmerman is president of TeleVox Software Inc., a subsidiary of West Corp. TeleVox provides customer and patient engagement communication (EC) services to North American health care and commercial markets. Reach him at email@example.com.
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