Utilities tackle first-call resolution with technology, training

L. Dennis Smith, Chartwell Inc.

“One call, that’s all.” It is the motto of a personal injury lawyer who spends big bucks on television advertising. But these days, many utility customer contact center executives might want to adopt that same slogan.

As electric and natural gas distribution utilities get back to a focus on energy delivery, the customer service side of the business has been elevated from basement status to stand front and center. This includes not only maintaining service reliability, but also handling customer calls promptly and with the knowledge necessary to answer the customer’s question or effectively handle the problem–in one call.

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It is called first-contact resolution, and it is a growing issue in the energy delivery business. Forward-thinking utilities can no longer concentrate on simply lowering call handle times. While this statistic is still important to the bottom line, the idea of politely and efficiently addressing a customer’s concern on the initial contact translates into a focus on the bigger picture. Satisfied customers leave with a good impression they are likely to share with others, and those customers are not likely to call their utility back, resulting in a reduced call load. This ultimately translates into customer satisfaction and sustained costs.

This single contact resolution doesn’t apply only to calls, however. The customer who reaches out through the Internet, e-mail or some other touch point must also be satisfied on the first go-around.

Common challenges

Each year, industry research firm Chartwell Inc. interviews more than 100 customer contact center executives and directors to gauge industry trends and happenings. In its most recent survey of 102 customer service officials, conducted at the end of 2002, respondents were asked to identify their primary challenges in the customer contact arena. A look at their responses shows that, indeed, no utility is an island. The challenges cited by respondents differed, but the top answers overwhelmingly revolved around people and technology.

The common threads amongst participants’ answers were as follows:

“- “Back to basics” is the new industry mantra. This translates into handling energy-related calls with an improved emphasis on service quality, while at the same time keeping costs down. Industry restructuring is no longer a burning issue.

“- Maintaining adequate staffing levels while handling an increased volume of calls is paramount.

“- Customer service directors either need improved technology, or they are faced with the challenge of implementing it.

“- If technology is the vehicle that drives quality service, the key is employee training and development.

With deregulation on the back burner, utilities realize their call centers are not going to look like Land’s End or Bank One, but the service customers get from leading retailers, financial institutions or even airlines may be measured against their utility as a model for service expectations.

So how are utilities addressing these challenges and expectations?

Systems integration enables customer care

Many utilities have focused on improving the technologies they have in place rather than making huge investments in the latest and greatest customer relation-ship management systems, Chartwell found. This is not to say that utilities have not invested in their customer care centers and CRM systems, but those investments have been made on technology that will improve call answer times, drive self-service initiatives, assist customer” service reps (CSRs) with service-oriented information and improve staff efficiency.

Chartwell found that most utilities–60 percent–have an interactive voice response unit (IVRU) in place to handle incoming calls. Utilities now use their IVRU to handle outage calls, customer meter reads, billing questions and other service inquiries. Some utilities are now into their second-generation IVRU, many of which include speech recognition and other advanced capabilities.

The next step is to integrate these technologies. As one customer care vice president at a 350,000-customer electric and water utility told Chartwell, there needs to be an integrated, single view of the customer whether that customer chooses to contact via phone, in person or on the Web.

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With integration of the IVRU and other communications technology in the call center with billing, outage management, geographical information and mobile workforce management systems, utilities should be able to reduce response times and increase productivity through improved communications or real-time information to customers, personnel and regulators.

“What’s happening is that the metrics are all changing that [utilities] have to relate to,” David Samuel, general manager, IBM Global Energy & Utilities industry practice, said in an interview recently at the CIS Conference in Nashville.

Utility personnel need the ability to make critical business decisions based on facts, Samuel noted. “So if the customer calls and says, ‘My lights are out,’ you need the ability to say, ‘yes, we know you’re lights are out, there’s a crew in the area because a car ran into a pole, etc. This is probably going to be a two-and-a-half-hour restoration.'”

System-wide integration efforts will give utilities the capability to know what is occurring in the distribution network and, from a customer contact standpoint, be able to provide real answers to the customers when they call into the call center.

People still make the difference

While it’s the technology that ultimately provides the necessary information, quality customer service is ultimately delivered by the employees. “I see the folks on the frontlines as being knowledge workers,” said Barbara Burke, call center consultant and president of BB & Associates. “There will always be a need for that human factor, because when all is said and done, it’s about the relationship.”

Call center experts advise utilities to make sure the front-line troops are not only well trained on the new software systems utilities have in place, but actually have input into the look and feel of various applications. It goes even further than that, however. One executive at a 1.1-million customer utility told Chartwell that development of quality CSRs extends far beyond training. It extends to “the skill set of CSRs and their ability to operate in gray areas–by developing skills and critical thinking ability,” he said.

Indeed, CSRs must be as well-versed in interpersonal skills and decision making as they are trained in technologies and day-to-day operations. The utilities interviewed by Chartwell deploy a variety of methods to educate CSRs, including recording and monitoring and using peer trainers to work with less experienced CSRs.

It is clear when speaking with customer service officials that utilities are striving for just the right mix of well-trained people and supporting technology to enhance the customer contact experience. An effective CSR with the right tools will be able to answer the customer’s question, on the first contact, whether it be to report an estimated restoration time for that customer who only calls when the lights go out, or to ensure that the customer who always pays late gets his call-in payment recorded promptly to avoid a pending disconnection.

Smith is editorial and research director for Chartwell Inc., an Atlanta-based research and publishing firm that offers specialized business information on management practices and technologies in customer service, billing, meter reading and marketing in the utility and retail energy business.

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