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The Disconnect Between the Deployment and Management of Utility Digital Channels

“Tell me something that I don’t already know.” This is what utility professionals, challenged by exploding advances in digital engagement, likely want to say each time they read an article harping on about the need to catch up with more advanced industries. And who can blame them?

Utility professionals are also likely to know or suspect that:

  • Customers are making decisions about companies based on single interactions
  • A growing number of customers prefer to use mobile devices to communicate with their utility
  • Most customers expect to receive real-time customer support, regardless of channel
  • Empowering customers through self-service channels positively impacts customer satisfaction
  • Utilities with low customer satisfaction have been granted a lower percentage of their requested return rate than utilities in top quartile

A new research report by TMG Consulting, Evolution of Digital Engagement 2017, Part 1: Mobility at the Helm, highlights drivers like these as the building blocks of modern business cases for investments in digital channels at utility companies, such as:

  • Website Improvements - the leading digital priority for utilities in the near future including the addition of mobile compatibility
  • Mobile Apps - a little more than half of utilities interviewed have a mobile app, but very few offer bill pay, usage, and outage info capabilities… most plan to do so over the next year
  • SMS Text - when asked about using text for various activities, text-enabled bill pay showed the most promise but, overall, text-related initiatives are being spearheaded by early adopters

Organizational Readiness

While TMG’s report proves that utilities clearly understand the precedence of advancing digital channel engagement, TMG’s research report shows that Organizational Readiness is lacking, especially in the areas of training and measurement.

Organizational Readiness involves the identification and measurement of change management and training activities necessary to ensure that both the technical and functional side of a utility are ready for the system to be deployed.

Training Shortfalls

TMG’s report revealed that, for first point of contact with a company, utility customers are moving away from calling a live agent in favor of web and mobile self-service, communities, virtual agents, automated chat dialogs and/or chatbots. Moreover, 60 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds, a growing base of utility customers, agreed with the statement, “If I had a customer service question, I would rather use a mobile app or web browser on my smart phone than call a contact center for an answer.”

However, most of utilities included in the study have not created tools, business rules, or exceptions to manage self-service automation. They report an increase in the number of complex problems going to CSRs when digital channels don’t work properly - an area in which many CSRs are not fully trained.

Training Recommendations

As a business practice, utilities should only deploy new channels after training staff to support them. TMG’s report shows that training is needed in the following areas:

  • Self-service exceptions which lead to more complex calls
  • Content development for sending texts and emails
  • Customer service support for smart devices that auto-report issues
  • Robotic process automation and AI to customize ‘first touchpoint’ and clearly define the roles of field and call center workers
  • Operational roles; the mobile worker is equally important to customer experience transformation

According to Kapil Nanchahal, Senior Director for Infosys, “The utility worker of 2020 will use mass produced robots for repeatable tasks and perform actionable tasks with VR/AR, sensor, and artificial Intelligence enabled digital aids. Utilities should prepare for it today.”  

Developing Measurement Tools and Metrics

TMG’s report also revealed that measuring the usage and the effectiveness of digital channels is lacking. 28 percent of utilities indicated that they do not measure customer KPIs at all, and most of the remaining 72 percent haven’t yet established KPIs for newer digital channels including social media, mobile, text, chat, and video.  Moreover, 56 percent are still using printed reports for KPI performance.

In many cases, the business case for new digital advancements may hinge on the performance of existing channels, meaning that proper justification makes proper measurements imperative. According to Maria DeChellis, client partner for Red Clay Consulting, “Utilities should focus as much time on redesigning customer service metrics when implementing a new digital profile as they did when they first implemented their systems. This will validate success of digital solutions and ensure that agents are incentivized to spend time handling more complex calls not suitable for self-service.”

Channel Measurement Recommendations

It is important to evolve customer KPIs to account for new channels. New KPIs may include:

  • Number of SMS text messages
  • Response time for digital inquiries
  • Mobile website traffic and activities
  • Digital app enrollment
  • Customer health and customer efforts scores
  • Number of incomplete transactions where customer aborted
  • Number of bills paid through digital apps
  • Revenue generated from products and services purchased through mobile channels
  • Number of mobile self-service complaints
  • Reduction in call volume (especially for billing balance inquiry and payment
  • Percentage of payments via each channel
  • Number of bills paid through digital apps
  • Revenue generated from products and services purchased through mobile channels
  • Number of mobile self-service complaints
  • Reduction in call volume (especially for billing balance inquiry and payment
  • Percentage of payments via each channel

It is equally as important to revisit standing call center KPIs. If mobile and self-service are used for simpler calls, those that go to the CSR will may take much longer. This requires adjusting the existing classification for what is a “poor” average handle time (AHT), as increases will be expected.

“The KPI’s that truly matter for utilities are those that lower the total cost to serve while increasing customer satisfaction,” says Kim Schafer, vice president of industry strategy and marketing for Vertex. “By providing better and more self-service functions, channels, and consistency across those channels, contact rates will decrease and average handle times should go up. Those customers actually calling will most likely need more time for the more complex issues.”

Speed Versus Preparedness

Insufficient Organizational Readiness, in the areas of training and measurement, is more likely a consequence of the pressure utilities feel to catch up to more progressive service industries than a response to “tell me something that I don’t already know about digital channels”.

The fact that customers are making decisions about companies based on single interactions makes the argument that speed isn’t better than getting it right and adequately preparing the organization for change should be as important as giving customers what they want. After all, history has proven that the latter isn’t possible without the former.

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