Where the Network Meets the Networked

by Rich Huntley and Jeremy Parker, Vertex Business Services

If you haven’t already heard of Generation Y, you will. These new customers are heading our way, and they are transforming how we deliver customer services.

Born in the 1990s, this army of confident, tech-savvy young adults is marching toward financial independence and soon will be demanding a new relationship with you; no surprise if you consider that they’ve always known a diverse, networked world that has created a greater sense of self-reliance than their parents experienced at that age.

Not only are these new customers more self-sufficient, they’re also more trusting of their peers–often via social media–than of organizations.

They’re happiest when they can self-serve, and they actively will avoid speaking with contact center agents unless necessary.

Fiserv Inc.’s “2010 Billing Household Survey: Consumer Survey of Offline and Online Billing and Payment Practices” shows that 74 percent of bill recipients visited their billers’ websites, and of that figure 66 percent went there to pay bills.

There also is increasing use of mobile devices as a preferred communications tool and text alerts that provide a powerful and instantaneous link between utilities and customers.

This is a shift from the typical utility company’s customer service function, and it will require active management if satisfaction (and the resultant goodwill among regulators) is to be maximized.

How, then, can utility companies maintain intimate relationships with their customers if those customers prefer digital channels over voice?

What are the Main Opportunities?

Social media provides additional channels to reach all customers, current and new. Granted, Facebook, Twitter and other sites can be confusing and sometimes noisy, but they are still important channels.

Unlike using more traditional ways to engage customers–bills, newsletters and events–now we can listen and respond to individuals and groups.

This allows us to gather real-time data and to act in ways and at speeds that were impossible before.

This will be key as efficiency and demand response program targets increase in many markets.

The ability to communicate what is changing is as crucial as reaching the right customers with the right information.

Harvesting. Remember the sign behind thousands of retail counters across the country, “If we please you, tell others. If we don’t, tell us,”? Social media takes that sentiment to a new level.

Go to any customer review website, and you’ll find that newly empowered customers have no hesitation in sharing their opinions about services.

Retailers such as Amazon see this community of views as a powerful, competitive differentiator.

Utilities should use or create forums that allow open, voluntary customer discussions of utility services and programs, thereby gaining real-time insights to improve your service to them.

This information will yield useful insights to location-based issues such as program adoption and response-time opinions. Opportunities for engagement also might be uncovered.

Take, for example, the identification of active communities sharing energy efficiency advice. But go deeper using smart data analysis (with customer consent, of course), and you can begin to gain insight from information tied to customer demographics, time of posting, issue type, etc.

All this can provide a customer dashboard that gives the business the opportunity to address problems before they escalate or to cross-sell products and services before customers know they need them.

Intervention. An opportunity to engage customers actively exists by following comments on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

This can demonstrate a company’s commitment to understand and resolve customer concerns and can enable the utility to handle issues before they cause reputation issues.

Having access to and amplifying positive comments or suggestions shows that an organization is listening and is eager to respond to customers.

Imagine how powerful it would be if you were able to identify issues about new rates or new equipment site concerns and address concerns before they impact your reputation.

This needn’t be expensive to administer. Vertex Business Services is deploying new automated processes with its partner, Numero, that allow contact center agents to bring all channels of communication into one place, enabling them to deliver a consistent, enhanced customer service experience whether via voice, e-mail or social channel. This ensures agents never are surprised by customers and can deliver seamless, real-time service.

Crowd sourcing. One of the most powerful uses of social media is its use of the wisdom of the crowd, a real-time focus group able to respond to concepts suggested by the organization. This allows the utility company to extract elements of customer polling and research and can provide a more accurate picture than sampling customers who have been incentivized to participate in a focus group.

This works because customers rarely hold back in social media and express their views honestly and openly.

Get it right, and you create an advocate community that generates incremental benefits. In addition to asking customers for opinions, informed advocates can resolve technical queries for customers seeking help.

For example, energy-efficient appliances could be peer-reviewed and recommended in a way complementary to the energy company’s promotional activity.

Application of gaming techniques. This emerging generation of customers has grown up with online gaming. Many of these games are scored not on monetary reward but with alternate reward structures such as collecting points, tokens and virtual rewards.

The application of these kinds of gaming techniques is visible today as some utilities send out efficiency benchmarks of customers’ comparative usage using happy or sad faces, allowing the collection of points to measure how they are succeeding on an individual and peer level.

As we deploy a smarter grid, this dynamic feedback and sense of completion can be applied around efficient consumption and load efficiency.

What Does This Mean for Utility Companies?

Empowered customers demand richer relationships with their utilities. If this demand is met, we can engineer a lower cost to serve as customers self-determine and manage their relationships proactively with their energy providers.

We also can meet our renewable, efficiency and load-management goals better.

This approach requires new skills. Agents must have better writing abilities than for voice-only interactions. Utilities will need digital ambassadors to address customer issues proactively and project positive, corporate reputations within the communities the companies serve.

Utilities should exploit three key social media opportunities:

1. Engage effectively with customers through data analysis. Use smarter ways of understanding your customers. Embrace data gleaned from smart meters to better empathize with their needs.

Link social media with your existing multichannel strategy to evaluate how much traffic can be redirected from your agents to online resources, allowing agents time to provide greater service when they speak with customers.

Ensure agents have the necessary skills to deliver service through channels other than voice.

2. Increase program adoption via innovative services and partnerships. Social customers impact multiple parts of a utility; the company should assemble a team of human resources, public relations, marketing, information technology and customer service experts so the social media strategy can reflect each particular requirement.

Employ real-time fault reporting, online network status indicators and automate the everyday processes to free resources for more complex, value-add interactions.

Consider introducing trials to willing communities or assess interest in innovative partnerships with retailers or manufacturers to find what they are receptive to and what they need.

3. Drive enhanced productivity and reduce cost to serve. Technologies and strategies utility companies adopt in the future must be cost-effective. Automated customer service processes–already second nature in comparable industries–will become more prevalent.

Companies should consider investing in these to benefit from economies of scale and reduce the requirement for capital expenditure.

Don’t Lose Sight of Customers

The starting pistol has been fired. Your future customers are about to go to college. They already have owned four cell phones, are on Twitter, instant message and aren’t loyal to any company or brand but place huge value on their virtual friends.

Whether it’s to meet the demands of an increasingly savvy generation of consumers or a need to reduce your cost to serve, the impact of these new customer channels will be felt for many years.


Rich Huntley is practice lead for energy efficiency and demand side management at Vertex Business Service. He has more than 25 years of experience in technology and customer care in the utilities and telecommunications industries. Reach him at rich.huntley@vertex.co.uk.

Jeremy Parker is consulting director of utilities at Vertex Business Service. He focuses on changes smart metering will bring to the UK utilities market space. Reach him at jeremy.parker@vertex.co.uk.


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