Trends in CIS: Optimize customer communications to build stronger relationships.

Utilities face major changes in every aspect of their operations. Although much of the change taking place in the industry is driven by simple economics, an equal amount comes from the public’s growing awareness of the impact of CO2 emissions on the climate and the need to move away from traditional fossil fuels.

Addressing customers’ needs and interests and making them active and supportive partners as electric utilities seek new solutions to environmental concerns will support both the utility’s business initiatives and its customers’ quality of life.

Trend: Document automation software

Commercial and private consumers are both willing to participate in energy conservation programs and to support green energy options. This cooperative spirit is something electricity service providers can and should tap into, but effective and relevant communications between the utility and the consumer are critical to the success of this effort. Implementing more effective communications presents its own set of challenges–namely, finding a way to address each customer with relevant messages while staying within budget constraints.

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One of the key issues at many utility companies is getting these newer, more customer-focused document solutions to work with existing legacy systems, which, by their very nature, are not able to respond quickly to market demands.

Replacing existing systems is rarely an option, particularly when budgets are already stretched thin to cover other core operations. Compatibility with legacy systems is also a major issue, especially as the personnel who designed and built these older systems are now approaching retirement age.

According to the latest survey by UtiliPoint International, more than half of the utility industry respondents expect more than 25 percent of their workforce to retire over the next five years. Many organizations are finding themselves hard-pressed to replace employees who are familiar with “big iron” computer systems and can write the code to link them to newer, more agile communications technologies. Mergers and acquisitions create other issues: one organization can be left with several different–and not always compatible–IT environments and corporate systems.

Despite these challenges, it is possible to take information from disparate systems and work from a single, comprehensive platform to create more customer-centric documents. Document automation software allows for easy integration with existing systems and content sources, allowing the utility to create consumer-focused communications that share critical information and encourage consumer responsiveness, and, at the same time, reduce document development and maintenance costs.

Hot trend: Going “TransPromo”

Consumers are much more likely to open and read their monthly bills than any other type of mail sent to them. While separate inserts packaged with the invoice are often overlooked, the bill provides the perfect opportunity to “meet” with customers to provide updates on rates and usage, suggest less burdensome payment programs, or address other issues and concerns.

With document automation software, the utility can use the monthly invoice or statement as a vehicle to speak to customers based on their individual needs and interests. And, by printing targeted marketing and informational messages directly on the invoice, utilities save the time and expense of duplicate mailings.

“TransPromo” documents–transactional documents coupled with promotional messages–are a hot trend in every industry for good reason. “Going TransPromo” provides a myriad of benefits, including maximizing the impact of your statements and other critical communications. With TransPromo documents you can:

Enhance customer communications Make communi-cations clearer and easier to understand by including only information that is relevant to the individual consumer.

Use the consumer’s preferred language Important, considering the nation’s Hispanic population has increased 60 percent over the last 10 years.

Include dynamic “point-of-need” messages Use available whitespace to clarify complex information. Create charts and graphs to illustrate electricity usage in peak and off-hours. Arrange content into columns or tables for easier reading. Use eye-catching highlight color or formatting to ensure the consumer doesn’t miss important information.

Create more relevant documents Deliver relevant information based on consumer profiles. For example, a family with young children has different needs and interests than “empty nesters.” Incorporate messages that are of interest to the consumer, like tips on conserving electricity usage.

Reduce printing and mailing costs Place marketing promotions and other information directly on the bill rather than including expensive and often overlooked inserts. Find out which communication channel each consumer prefers–print/mail, e-mail or the web. Delete unnecessary information. One utility reduced paper output by 7 million sheets per year by deleting information from its invoices that customers said they no longer cared about. This one action alone resulted in a savings of $297,000 annually in printing and mailing costs.

Trend: Develop new applications

Forward-thinking utilities are developing even more sophisticated applications. For example, a large utility on the East Coast has put into place a reporting feature that shows unusual or inappropriate spikes in a consumer’s energy usage based on real-time meter reads and related factors like time-of-day and outdoor weather conditions. Customers are alerted to these spikes on their monthly bill and advised to check for leaks or other irregularities, both to ensure consumer safety and to assist customers in controlling energy costs.

Communication is the key to every good, productive relationship and the best possible place to invest your energy.

Author

Scott Braynard is vice president of sales, public services, at Exstream Software by HP. Exstream helps organizations of all sizes connect with their constituents through more effective, fully personalized communications. Exstream is on the web at www.exstream.com.

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