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Making it real for utility consumers

I THINK THE CHALLENGES ARE MANY IN TERMS OF THE utility industry right now, as it relates to consumer engagement. It is well known that there's a range of diverging opportunities that are driving transformation. On the one hand, we have grid modernization initiatives, and our regulators are really holding us accountable to transform the consumer relationship and to make the smart grid relevant and real to consumers. On the other hand, we know that consumers have a hard time understanding synchrophasing, switching and circuits. Thus, T&D technology enhancement is difficult for the average consumer to get their heads around when discussing the benefits of the intelligent grid.

So the best way for us to do that for consumers is to make it real to them. And how we make it real to them is we place an acute focus on the channels through which we interact with them like our Web, phone centers, text, mobile device, etc. Our big challenge right now is to really begin to develop the strategies that we're going to have to deploy to make the marriage between these channels and our back-end distribution systems relevant to consumers.

Internal and external pressure
Outside of that we have other challenges going on, those challenges around how we think about consumer engagement in general. I always like to say there's external and internal pressure: there's a push and a pull. We're being pulled in some ways by our consumers, and that's because our consumers are benchmarking us outside the utility industry around experience. So if I can pay my phone or cable bill, if I can go online and do trouble-shooting, these are the types of things that the telecom companies began to do years ago. You used to call AT&T if you had trouble on your line, and they'd say "Hold a minute and let me check your line." We're being pulled by our consumers to innovate and transform in terms of how they interact with us by those expectations.

On the flip side, we're being pushed by the regulators to drive greater efficiencies in terms of the reliability of our grid as well as providing consumers more information. The smart grid and the smart meters are one way to do that. But again, the way that we do that is through the channels in which we interact with consumers. So, more than ever before, you see us contemplating mobility, social media, Web interactions, and really thinking about how we react in our IVRs [interactive voice recognition] in such a way as to make these solutions more relevant for consumers, their expectations, and also delivering in terms of regulators' expectations.

For example, at CenterPoint we have begun to offer multiple capabilities in our IVR. The challenge and the problem that we find is that there's only so much that you can add to the touch tone IVR before you reach a point of proliferation. Every time a consumer has to do something, they're drilling down another level in the IVR menu. At some point they get fatigued, and so they zero out, when they really want a self-service. One of the things we've contemplated at CenterPoint is using natural language capabilities in the IVR as one way for us to flatten that IVR experience out for the consumer, so that when a consumer calls in, they can just talk in their own language.

There are a lot of things that we can offer them, but there's only so much you can offer a consumer on the traditional IVR platform until there are too many buttons and too much of a maze they have to go through.

Starting with a customer vision
How do you flatten that out? In the future, one of the things that the smart meters allow us to do is to ping the meter to determine if in fact we do have voltage going to that consumer's home. That's something that could easily be done in an IVR. CenterPoint is developing the kind of distribution operations capability to support this. But how do you add that with payments, extensions, changing your billing information and more? This is when it becomes a lot more complex.

The way that we've tried to approach it is to start with a customer vision, or who we want to be to our consumers. What is CenterPoint Energy's vision for its consumers? We are contending with the transmission and distribution relationship with the consumer in a deregulated market. We are contending with a meter-to-cash relationship with a gas consumer. We also have consumers who have appliances service plans. These consumer relationships overlap across these different products and services. This is one of the reasons why we have to be strategically thinking about who we are going to be to our consumers: how do we now present the appropriate options, segments and channel strategies in a way that adds value to the consumers and doesn't confuse?

We're starting with a strategy in determining through segmentation analysis and process design what channels we should be offering up to what consumers, and by what capabilities, and how this is going to benefit them and also benefit the utility in terms of our ability to become more efficient and to be the trusted adviser.

At CenterPoint, what has made me excited about it is that our senior executive team gets the value of consumer engagement from a utility perspective. We are a services company; we provide services to consumers. Sometimes I joke that, within our industry, the utility is always fighting the last war as it relates to what we're offering consumers. We're always sitting around the room saying, "Hey, Bank of America can do this" or "AT&T can do this, why can't we?"

So one of the things that we have contemplated is a much more forward-looking strategy. When you start getting really serious about consumer engagement transformation, especially leveraging technology, sometimes these projects can go anywhere from one to three years. Our journey is definitely going to be three years at this point, looking at the total complement of consumer transformation.

Ensuring the value-add for the consumer
Given that, it's important for us to be very thoughtful about how we do this. So having a supportive leadership team, all the way up at your CEO level, is critical, and we have that. And so is bringing consumers into the equation in terms of getting that voice of the consumer to ask them what types of channels and what types of offerings are going to be value-adding to them. And so, as a part of our journey, we plan to have a group of consumers go through this journey to help us validate things that we're putting out there for them.

It is important to start with the strategy, and then to start talking about what the solutions are to the strategy, and to be very outcome-specific. Depending upon what your focus is-whether it's smart grid, or whether it's driving greater efficiencies-being really clear on the outcomes and how they tie to that strategy is a critical success factor.


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