Successful Online Strategies for Improved Customer Service

Utility customers have new choices, new technologies-and new opinions. Because of the digital revolution, utility customers expect instant, exceptional and perfect customer service.

Utilities must strive to satisfy this ever-increasing demand for improved customer service. The utility customer information system (CIS) isn’t just a billing system anymore, it directly impacts the customer’s perception of a utility. And utilities that are positioned to respond to customer needs and expectations will reap the benefits.

Savvy customers

Online services are fast becoming the norm. Advertising campaigns that promote the website are an absolute necessity. Many utility companies accomplish this with bill stuffers or online access information printed directly on the paper bill. Television, radio, newspaper and magazine ads have also proven to be effective.

Today’s utility customer requires a user-friendly interface, one that is easy to navigate, with clear and concise menu options. Site maps and well-marked drop down boxes help to lower the frustration of new or inexperienced users. Utilities often offer multiple language options based on their demographic surveys and are able to communicate with various sectors that might otherwise be difficult to reach. The traditional website has features that enable each customer to view his or her account with usage and payment history and pay bills online. The online payment options include credit/debit cards, bank drafts and discount incentives for automatic bank drafts. Customers are able to make changes to their accounts by updating their billing address, contact information, or even add, remove or change their service.

As consumers become more computer savvy, the demand for more data exchange increases. At the leading edge of online services today, some utilities offer an interactive home energy analysis and bill comparisons to other customers with similar amenities. They educate the consumer about ways to manage consumption and cost. Several energy companies offer rebates on energy efficient appliances and equipment to entice customers to consider efficiency when building or upgrading their home or business.

There are online calculators available that allow the customer to understand the time-of-use rates and view incentive programs that reveal the actual savings involved in scheduling when energy is consumed. Graphs and other easy to understand visual aides demonstrate usage trends and show the impact of weather changes. As smart appliances and equipment are developed, the option of prepaid energy usage included in the cost may soon be a reality, as will the ability to schedule the hours of appliance operation.

Online data offers consumers a direct line to report and check on the status of an outage. With aerial maps of streets and geographic data only a click away, customers are not “in the dark” anymore. Utilities can provide accurate information regarding the extent of an outage and a reasonable estimate as to the timeframe for restoration of service, relieving the traffic into their call centers.

Modern technology allows UPS and FedEx to track every step of delivery. Trucking companies know the specific location of all of their vehicles. In much the same way, utility companies must continue to develop and employ new technology to become better at communicating with their customers.

Are you helping your utility company to integrate new methods of customer communication?

How are other utility companies rising to the challenge of increased requirements and shrinking budgets?

Is utility management leading the way into the future and thinking “outside the box” as other industries are doing?

Not only do utility customers demand reliability, they expect instant information. What new technologies are available to meet consumer needs? Your customers are the judge and jury. What does your online interface say about your utility?

Next year’s CIS Week will explore many of these issues and topics. Plan now to attend CIS Week, May 21-24, 2007 in Orlando, Florida.

Jerry Duvall, CEO, CIS Conference Inc.

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