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Utility Customer Expectations Leading Channel Preferences

The humble and ever-reliable text message celebrated its 25th birthday on December 3, 2017. Today, TextRequest reports that approximately 18.7 billion SMS texts are sent each day.

Despite its success, the future of this channel is uncertain. The rise of “over-the-top (OTT)” messaging services that provide advanced functionality are changing user expectations, leading to a reduction in the number of peer-to-peer SMS texts being sent and declining revenues among mobile operators.

This story spotlights a significant challenge for utility companies. Customer-focused teams must go beyond the adoption of new channels to evaluating the effectiveness of existing channels against current and developing customer expectations. Changing expectations are the impetus for shifting contact channel preferences.

RIMSolutions, the research practice of TMG Consulting, recently uncovered three leading, present-day expectations which originated across several industries, as shown in Figure 1. Understanding their origin provides direction around “who to watch” to forecast what is coming before it becomes a utility industry disrupter. Disrupters are non-negotiable; they force change on companies, ready or not.

Figure 1.

What Customer Expect

  1. On-the-Go. RIM’s research showed that 60 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds agreed with the statement, “If I had a customer service question, I would rather use a mobile app or web browser on my phone than call a contact center. Furthermore, 17 percent of 18-29-year old's only access internet through mobile devices – a statistic of increasing importance because 35 percent of millennials are bill payers.

Whether at the grocery store, gym, or a ballet recital, customers want the ability to interact with service providers anytime and anywhere. Making the most of one’s time through multi-tasking is a newer value that has quickly become hard-wired into customers. As a result, it is paramount for utility companies to give customers channels to engage on their own terms, a feat that can be achieved most easily by prioritizing a mobile strategy.

  1. Speed. Whether inquiring about an inflated water bill, outage restoration time, or service call, 64 percent of customers told RIM that they expect real-time responses to inquiries. A whopping 75 percent believe that it takes too long to reach a live agent and are thus looking for speedier channels.

Modern digital channels, including mobile-enabled websites, mobile apps, mobile-optimized alerts, SMS texts (for business conversations), live chat, digital assistants, chatbots, and social media, provide the speed that customers want. As a result, it’s not surprising that Dimension Data reports growth in every digital channel except for the phone where they see a 12 percent decrease. In addition to modern channels, this data is also consistent for early digital channels like desktop websites, email, and forums/message boards.

  1. Empowerment. For the first point of contact with a company, company-assisted channels are less popular than those which give customers the opportunity to serve themselves. In part, this is because customers expect constant, 24-hour availability whether the company is “open” or not.

According to an investor-owned utility with 850,000 customers, “Of all transactions (stop, start, move, payment arrangements, outages, etc.) self-service handles between 25-45% of these transactions.” Most utilities who participated in the study said that they expected this number to increase.

When asked about empowerment, Ram Kasarla, a partner at Milestone Utility Services, said, “With the average American spending seven minutes more on mobile in 2017 than 2016, forward-thinking utilities are incorporating more mobile-specific features to enhance the customer experience (CX). Empowering customers to act starts with gaining their trust and earning credibility. If self-service doesn’t offer a positive CX, customers are less empowered to act.”

Knowing What Customers Want Before They Do

Based on the three leading customer expectations, the research study by RIMSolutions showed that mobile everything, self-service, chat, and chatbots/digital assistants are among today’s leading channel preferences, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

While “on-the-go”, “speed”, and “empowerment” are currently leading these channel preferences, they will evolve and change. As a result, it is important to incorporate a value of “listening” to utility customer teams. Tracking channel proliferation and evolution from customer champions in banking, finance, and insurance is a good place to start. It then falls upon utilities to adopt these methods to better provide for the utility industry-specific market. 

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