Utilities Go Online to Enhance CS

by Doug Hartman, Telus International

Smart grid technology brings about huge opportunities for utilities to proactively address customer service and engagement. Smart meters also give rise to a vast amount of data that utilities and their customer service representatives must manage.

A Telus-sponsored IDC Energy Insights white paper published in 2010 found 35 percent of utility respondents had noted an increase in customer call volume as a result of smart grid deployments. The research also pointed to a growing number of consumers looking for new and more effective ways to connect with their utilities’ customer service departments to understand the changes.

With more consumers moving their conversations online, adding online chat–real-time, two-way text communication over the Internet–is a powerful customer service option. Online chat allows agents to deliver personalized, timely communications to customers while multitasking with simultaneous sessions to reduce interaction costs significantly.

Using reactive click-to-chat or proactive pop-up chat windows on a utility website, chat agents can answer questions about outages, billing issues and how to reduce power consumption. Online chat offers a powerful engagement platform for utilities to educate customers on smart grid or to provide assistance in real time while customers navigate a utility’s new energy management Web portal.

Despite these benefits, online chat remains underused in the industry. The same white paper found only 10 percent of utility respondents have implemented live chat, and only 60 percent of utilities report having a Web portal customers can access for service.

Meanwhile, demand for online chat has been growing. Many companies already notice a strong preference among younger consumers for online chat. In a recent ATG Global Consumer Trend study, 90 percent of U.S. consumers ranked click-to-chat as “useful to extremely useful.”

Making Chat Work for Utilities

Another study on chat benchmarking published by Telus International and SPOT Consulting found that a successful online chat session is made of three key elements: agent skills, chat system features and communications style.

Agent Skills. Agent skill is critical to delivering a positive customer experience. Training for online chat specifically is one of the most important things a company can do to maximize the online customer experience. Call center agents are not the same as chat agents. Chat agents must be able to construct a conversation in the chat environment. This includes knowing how to communicate potentially complex explanations around billing or new energy products in a text-based format following best practices such as answering questions directly with the most important information upfront and only one or two ideas per response.

Chat System Features. Another important element is functionality of a chat system or platform. Chat technology is becoming more sophisticated. The system should help set customer expectations in queue position and estimated wait times. Customers also need to link easily to security and privacy information and ideally should have access to post-chat transcripts. For utilities, security and encryption features are critical, considering the sensitive billing and usage information available to utility agents.

Communications Style. Communications style is another critical element in conveying a utility’s brand. The key takeaway is to invest in writing skills. While smiley faces and emoticons often are accepted in chat interactions, too many can appear unprofessional and detract from your brand. Proper grammar and spelling is also essential for agent credibility. Most important, the chat conversation must remain human with a careful balance between canned vs. free-form responses, especially when frustrated customers are on the other end.

Putting it All Together

With so much Web-based opportunity, adding online chat to a utility’s customer service mix can boost customer satisfaction. As many utilities are increasingly challenged to provide better online customer service, particularly in the face of smart grid, online chat moves utilities from reactive customer service to proactive customer engagement.


Douglas Hartman is executive director of energy solutions at Telus International, a provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients, backed by Telus, its Canadian telecom parent. For more information visit http://telusinternational.com.


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