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Smart Advice for Utility Companies: Better Meters Require Better Communication Channels

As utility companies adopt new technologies to run their businesses more efficiently, they'd be wise to make sure their communication channels keep up.

Although the delivery of natural gas and electricity hasn't changed much over the years, the way utility companies are metering and billing for their services is currently undergoing a major change. By replacing traditional meters with smart meters, utility companies will eliminate the need to manually read meters each month. Not only do smart meters have the potential to save utilities thousands of labor hours each month, these Internet-connected devices can also be used to conserve energy, and they can instantly alert the utility company in the event of a power outage.

If utility companies think that smart meters will eliminate the need for open communication channels with their customers, however, they're in for a rude awakening. While it's true that smart meter technology has the potential to drive new efficiencies and cost savings, it will inevitably create a few new problems.

Utility companies in Maryland learned this lesson firsthand. From October 1, 2012 through December 10, 2013, 1,863 Maryland residents reported numerous problems with smart meters, with complaints ranging from inaccurate billing to fires. One resident reported that his bill skyrocketed from $180 to $800 after the smart meter was installed.

More recently, utility Portland General Electric announced it was replacing 70,000 smart meters after three reports of fires caused by overheating of the meter-home interconnection. That blow was followed by the Saskatchewan government's decision to remove 105,000 smart meters deployed by utility SaskPower, after finding eight reports of malfunctions, some resulting in fires on the outside of the home.

Smart Meters Require Smart Communication Channels

The worst thing utilities - or any businesses - can do when problems occur is to make it difficult for customers to reach them. Some utility providers have become notorious at eluding customer complaints. If you've ever experienced a power outage or had a question about your bill, you can likely relate. After calling the toll-free number listed on your statement, you're "greeted" by an automated attendant, who attempts to help you navigate through dozens of menus and submenus only to leave a message. Or, how about this experience: "Thank you for calling. Your call is important to us. We appreciate your patience as we assist another valued caller." After 30 minutes of waiting, you finally get through to a customer service agent who turns out to be completely unable to address your problem and must transfer you to a more senior agent that may be able to help you after you explain your situation all over again.

If utility companies want to embrace the latest metering technologies, they can't let their communication channels remain stuck in the 1990s - especially while they work out their transition to smart meters. The smarter move is to be prepared to interact with customers via live agents (i.e. real people, not auto attendants). Unlike auto attendants, live agents can listen to problems, discern between minor issues (e.g. "Why is my bill higher this month than last month?) and emergencies (e.g. "Why is my meter making a strange sound and smoking?"), and create a much better experience for the customer and utility company.

Today's smartphone-carrying customers are used to communicating in a variety of ways, including email, SMS, social media, IM/web chat, and VoIP to name a few. Providing superior customer service requires utility companies to work with an "omnichannel" contact centerprovider that can bring together all these communication channels into a single desktop experience.

Empower Agents With Tailored Business Intelligence

Additionally, contact center agents must be empowered with the right tools to traverse the changing communication landscape, where an initial point of contact can blossom into a multi-media data-sharing collaboration across several channels.

A recent report from ContactBabel, titled: The US Contact Center Decision-Makers' Guide 2014, shows that the most effective contact centers deploy customized desktop solutions tailored to each agents' specific needs, pulling in only the right data and applications from disparate systems and presenting information on a single screen. In the background, business rules and workflow make sure that the right back-office processes happen automatically without agent intervention.

The result of providing agents with the right information at the right moment is that they can more quickly resolve problems (remember: the vast majority of their work day entails working with upset customers), which both reduces their stress levels and makes for a better customer experience.

The more intelligence utilities can provide their contact center agents, the less experience is required for agents to competently handle customer issues, too. Put another way, when companies fail to build strong knowledge bases, the pressure to know everything is placed on agents' shoulders, which results in a highly stressful work environment and higher churn rates in the contact center.

The more options your agents have to effectively handle customer interactions, the more options your customers have to request and receive the service they need. Despite all the potential improvements smart meters promise to offer utility companies, making improvements in technology at the expense of customer service is still a new loss.

The true recipe for success also includes a multichannel communication environment where contact center agents are empowered and equipped to resolve customer problems.

John Cray's picture

Thank John for the Post!

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