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Ameren Missouri: from CSR to 'energy advisor'

A typical utility typically answers customer calls for a few typical reasons—someone's power is out, their bill is too high, they're moving, etc.

What if a customer called seeking advice? Questions on energy efficiency are pretty simple to deal with. But beyond that, what if a customer wanted advice on managing their energy use and, thus, their bill? What if your customer has questions around electric vehicles, solar panels, phantom load? What would you tell them?

Well, at Ameren Missouri, a customer service representative might transfer that call to one of the utility's new "energy advisors," who could answer a raft of questions about home energy use and management strategies. These advisors can view the customer's energy use data, access an in-house, subject matter expert if the question is complicated and apprise the caller that there's a wealth of related information on the utility's website—including the ability to set up an account for viewing individual energy use information, with year-on-year graphical comparisons. A tool, developed in-house, tracks the number of questions an energy advisor can't answer, forwards the question to the appropriate subject matter expert and tracks metrics that can be used to improve energy advisor training and Web-based content.

What began as an initiative involving a dozen CSRs out of a team of perhaps 180 has grown to three dozen, with plans to train all CSRs to become conversant in residential energy issues, according to Sandi Spurbeck, Ameren Missouri's manager of customer service. The goal is to gain customers' trust as a source of good advice, to provide solid information and to begin transitioning customers to self-service via the Web.

If that sounds like a program you'd like to hear more about, Spurbeck will be presenting at the 2012 AGA/EEI Customer Service Conference & Exposition in Fort Worth this week.

The Ameren Missouri homepage includes a set of "Quicklinks" for the customer service center, energy advisor, construction services, energy efficiency, etc. Click on "energy advisor" and there's a banner that flashes "Find Your Answers" and provides information on electric vehicle charging, solar photovoltaics and CFLs. Below are fixed icons that offer services such as "Learning Center," "What's New" and "Saving Tips." Just below those are topical icons for renewables, solar, rebates and incentives, smart grid, electric vehicles and "Energy Team Advisors."

While Ameren Missouri's CSR team's primary focus has been billing, the utility's customers are "hungry for more," Spurbeck told me this week. A couple of good reasons why: while residential customers have grasped energy efficiency measures, the advent of a smarter grid and distributed generation such as electric vehicles as well rooftop solar has produced a lot of new questions.

Within the customer service bailiwick at Ameren Missouri, those 180 CSRs get split up into subgroups that deal with a variety of subtopics such as construction, business center, etc. That was the old model. The new model is to make every CSR into that trusted energy advisor who can engage and inform customers.

How has the effort affected the metrics that call centers are evaluated on, such as "average handle time," the number of callbacks and the utility-wide metric, customer satisfaction ratings?

Spurbeck pointed out that in initial measurements of "average handle time," calls handled by energy advisors tend to be longer than average CSR calls, which is intuitive, given that more qualitative exchanges are occurring. But the longer term expectation is that callbacks will be reduced, customer satisfaction will rise and as the customer base gets more savvy, the utility expects to see greater use of web-based information self-service, according to Spurbeck.

In the future, the "energy advisor" training will be applied to employees across the organization so that when they're active in their communities they can field questions from neighbors and anyone with a question regarding the utility.

Sure, there were lessons learned as Ameren Missouri implemented its energy advisor training and the parallel work on providing as expert advice via its website.

"The biggest lesson learned was expect the unexpected," Spurbeck said. "We made a lot of changes to our website to support this program. Having correct, pertinent information required multiple internal reviews before we went public."

Another lesson: rolling out such a program in a period when you expect high call volume can tie up your phone lines. At Ameren Missouri, which issues 1.2 million bills each month on a staggered basis, the postcard bills offered the utility's primary, toll-free phone number and the energy advisor phone number. When customers encountered waiting times on the primary number, they deluged the energy advisor number with traditional issues. Since then the utility has removed the energy advisor phone number from the bill.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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