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When will utilities close their call centers?

When will utilities close their call centers?

In the future, utilities will leverage multiple operations technologies to virtually eliminate customer concerns in the billing and emergency response arena.

The utility industry in the United States and all across the world is experiencing a transformation driven by technology choices, supply impacts, environmental standards and customer expectations. Many utilities are now leveraging two-way metering technologies, interactive web portals, and new outreach and engagement campaigns.

Yet even with these technology investments, and a growing customer population comfortable with self-service options, utilities still rely on labor intensive and unique customer interactions in the call center. The benefit of investments in call centers to ultimate customer satisfaction is unclear. Just because we get better at handling mistakes and complaints doesn’t address customer dissatisfaction stemming from the underlying root causes of the problems. 

Today’s call center sits at the bottom of a large information funnel that manages mistakes made at every step of the meter-to-cash process. Call center activities typically represent interactions with only 10% - 20% of total customer populations. Many times the same customers repeatedly contact the call center with the same issue, month after month, year over year.

Many utilities have much less than 50% of their customers taking advantage of electronic billing, electronic payment, self-service options, or web portal services. Yet, the costs of transactions through these channels are cents-on-the dollar, compared to $2.00 - $4.00/transaction for billing, payment, and credit interactions. In addition, utility customer demographics show increasing expectations impacts from the millennial generation who like fast and easy mobile access to account information, real-time updates on outages and events, and data on usage with proactive communications.

The call center focus is changing – when was the last time you had to call a firm about one of their products? Most companies started in the last two decades use technology to address customer issues before they even arise. These firms provide tons of information through electronic methods, including customer-sourced environments (such as giffgaff) and supported self-service FAQ’s. Firms offer chat functions on their web portals and responsive e-mail services. Each of these options, along with an intelligent IVR, can draw from a pre-designed menu of options and information; a library of information that grows with every customer contact.

In addition, as utilities invest in technologies to remove potential trouble areas, the volume of calls required to address customer complaints will decline. In the future, utilities will leverage multiple operations technologies to virtually eliminate customer concerns in the billing and emergency response arena. This would leave the call center to handle general information, complaints, new services, and miscellaneous calls. By off-loading unnecessary and non-core calls and substituting e-channel interactions for most other needs, the new customer care center can focus on outreach, engagement, and marketing – of new products, new services, and new partnerships. 

This Customer Success center would focus on key e-channel interactions and value-added services. Great organizations think not just about delivering products to customers, but also about helping customers succeed at using those products and services. The utility/customer partnership of the future will leverage customer knowledge and preferences, integrate customer-owned and customer–facing technologies, and leverage the success center to respond to emerging and future needs. 

Changing the way utilities interact with their customers is a start of a new business model. The “utility of the future” won’t suddenly emerge as an intact new entity (such as the Apple, Tesla, or Amazon successes). Rather, our industry will evolve into this new role over time, in 51 different regulatory jurisdictions, involving hundreds of legacy system designs, and thousands of customer models. We encourage you to start somewhere….providing your customer the experience that they have come to expect from other companies while driving down costs and increasing customer satisfaction is a good place to start. 

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