Jan. 18, 2018 | InBrief

Alexa, what's my energy usage? Utility tech is becoming more "human"

Alexa, what's my energy usage? Utility tech is becoming more "human"

In a recent blog post, we discussed how conversational technologies (such as chatbots and voice assistants) are quickly becoming the “next disruptive technology wave” due to recent technology advances and gradual changes in user behavior, as well as the tangible business benefits such as improved customer experience and decreased customer support costs.

There are a number of scenarios where it makes sense to implement conversational technologies:

  • Your business is processing many simple, repeatable, predictable requests with simple results
  • Information customers are seeking is relatively simple to provide
  • You need to provide reliable, round-the-clock customer service
  • You need to perform repeatable outbound customer outreach
  • Your business is selling low-involvement, low-touch products

While there are of course more reasons than the above for using these technologies, these are the “low hanging fruit” use cases within the world of conversational interfaces.

One area abundant with these use cases, and where we’ve seen significant interest from clients, is the utilities industry. The customer service flows are generally repeatable, the requests are predictable, and the answers are usually straightforward. The information that customers often request is readily available. There is a need for automated, scalable customer outreach around energy and cost savings programs. Utility sales may be the epitome of “low touch”, with few to no emotional choices or customization available for customers. Most of all, customer service is a 24x7x365 endeavor to literally “keep the lights on”.

In this article, we’ll discuss a few use cases where utilities can take advantage of chatbots and voice assistants to drive operational efficiency, improve the customer experience, and meet modern user expectations.

Customer Self-Service

Customer service and support is one of the biggest opportunities for businesses to take advantage of chatbots and voice assistants, as the use case is inherently “conversational” with standard, repeatable customer dialogs and operational processes, and customer data readily available. Many utility customer service scenarios can be fully automated by conversational systems, which can lead to significant deflection of expensive incoming customer service phone calls. For many of our clients, the prorated cost per each inbound customer service call falls between anywhere from $5 to upwards of $20 in some cases, depending on the length and complexity of the call. Across millions of phone calls, deflection of even 5% of overall call volume can lead to significant ROI. Several key utility customer service flows that can be fully automated using chatbots and voice assistants include:

  • Understanding energy usage, comparing usage to neighbors
  • Reviewing past bills, making bill payments
  • Saving money with efficiency programs
  • Information about saving energy or reducing carbon emissions
  • Enrollment in energy saving or demand response programs
  • Account issues, such as account number lookup or password reset
  • Initiating service moves, cancellations, address changes, etc.

These are use cases where the processes are repeatable, the data already exists in back-end systems, and the information is straightforward to display and present to the end user.

Outbound Customer Outreach

Many utilities engage in significant outbound customer outreach to drive customers to save money and energy. Examples include reaching out to customers to provide information about new programs including rebates, home energy upgrades, demand response programs, alternative pricing programs, and more. Much of this outreach is done either via costly and time-consuming outbound phone calls or e-mails that are, in many cases, going unread or heading straight to the spam folder for many customers.

Many of the aforementioned outreach scenarios could be accomplished by implementing a text-messaging chatbot that could reach out to engage customers via SMS or even Facebook Messenger – where many customers are spending an ever increasing amount of their “online time”.  The outreach chatbot could answer any questions that customers have about the various programs, as well as handle enrollment of the customer into the programs – collecting information as-needed and enabling a simplified opt-in experience.

Outage Reporting

Many utilities are actively investing in advanced outage management systems due to increases in regulatory scrutiny and heightened demand for accurate, instantaneous information from customers. Chatbots can provide an instantaneous “always available” avenue for customers to report outages, or provide real-time up to date information to keep customers in-the-know on when their service will be restored. Rather than calling into a customer service center (which is likely slammed during a major outage event) and waiting on hold to report an outage or get more information – a customer could simply send a text message to report their outage, provide more details to the utility as-needed, and opt-in for real time status updates.

Field Operations

While the use cases we’ve discussed so far are focused on the customer, field operations represents an especially interesting internal enterprise use case for voice assistants. Voice technologies work well in environments requiring hands-free requests for real-time information, a common scenario for lineman and other utility field workers. Field service workers often have their hands tied up – wearing gloves or operating in inclement weather, access to data via laptops and mobile devices can be difficult. Alexa, or other similar voice-based systems, could be connected to backend systems like GIS, DMS, and OMS to provide hands-free access to critical operational information for field workers. Key applications in field services might include:

  • Hands-free voice data requests to GIS, DMS, and OMS systems such as:
    • What is my next service call?
    • What circuit am I nearby?
    • What is the service history for this transformer?
    • What is the power rating for this transformer?
    • What is the current network status for this equipment?
  • Field worker check-in/check-out
  • Logging completion of activities and other status updates

Field workers could make these data requests using a connected smart watch or headset device, securely integrated with backend systems. Benefits include improved worker efficiency, improved access to data in the field, expanded safety tracking, and enhanced situational awareness.

The use cases of customer self-service, outage reporting, customer outreach, and field operations represent a few of the key “low hanging fruit” applications for conversational technologies, where utilities can quickly realize tangible benefits and ROI by embracing and implementing these systems. Though there are many other use cases where these technologies could be used including security, safety, inspections, training, remote assistance, service scheduling and more. Conversational systems and voice-based interaction have existed for years, but recent technological advances have made these technologies more feasible to implement and deploy for businesses, more accessible for customers, and less frustrating for end users to interact with. These new, disruptive technologies represent a chance for utilities to fully take advantage in order to reduce costs, drive operational efficiencies, and improve customer service experiences.

Our technology, CX, and utilities experts have experience assisting clients in building out their strategies for using conversational systems, designing the user interactions and architecture, and fully implementing and developing platform-agnostic chatbot and voice assistant applications.  If you would like to learn more about designing and implementing conversational technologies, feel free to reach out to us for more information.

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