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Old-Fashioned Customer Service in a Smart Grid World

So often when the smart grid and its impact on utility customer service is discussed, there is a tendency to focus on the infrastructure that will need to be in place to support the smart grid programs, such as advanced metering infrastructures and meter data management systems. Or we discuss the neat technologies and gadgets that we will have at our disposal, such as intelligent meters, orbs, web portals and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

One of the things that I don't think our industry is discussing enough is how the smart grid is going to impact the two primary ways that utilities currently communicate with their customers, namely, through the utility bill and the customer service representative. As the smart grid evolves, it will completely change both of these means of communication.

Since the billing statement is currently the only regularly scheduled communication that most utilities have with their customers, the utility bill functions as a critical touch point between utilities and their customers. Residential customers are accustomed to having all the information that they need to calculate their bill located on the bill. In the past this has been pretty simple. The calculation simply involved subtracting last months kWh reading from this month's, and multiplying that number times the customer's rates for generation, distribution and transmission, and then summing of these figures.

With the dynamic pricing programs associated with the smart grid, typically there will be more calculations associated with an hour's worth of usage than there was for an entire month on the traditional residential bill. As such, utilities will need to redesign the bill to effectively communicate how the bill was calculated.

Even the information regarding the bill calculation will need to be summarized on the monthly bill, as depending on the type of pricing program that the customer is utilizing, this could involve thousands of calculations. 

Given the complexity of the bill, it is likely that charts and graphs will need to be used to reveal how spending and usage compares to prior periods, or to explain more complicated issues, such as whether the utility customer is using the best pricing plan based on the their historical usage pattern.

For all of the changes that will occur with the bill though, the customer service representatives (CSRs) in the utility call center will have even larger challenges. For example, when customers call to say their smart meter is not working properly, CSRs will need to establish which device is not working. For example, having been involved with a few smart grid pilot programs, I can say from personal experience that residential customers do not distinguish between smart meters and smart thermostats.

Once a CSR has established which device is not working from the customers' perspective, the representative needs to sort out if it's actually not working and if so, to advance the call to the appropriate party.

With many smart meter implementations, the calculation of daily customer charges of the previous day's usage will be available to the customer (either by a web portal or an in-home customer device). The CSR will need to have access to the same customer information and will need the tools to be able to respond to the customer.

The call center will also need to be able to effectively work with customers to take advantage of more detailed information on energy usage and spending and how to apply it to customer concerns. CSRs will need a strong understanding of the end-to-end business process and changes.

Additionally, CSRs must also be prepared to answer and handle a complicated set of questions and issues. This requires call center agents to have training and access to the applications and information to provide effective responses.

The utility industry will continue to experience significant changes as a result of smart grid initiatives moving from planning and development stages to deployment of technology and the introduction of products and services never before possible. As we proceed, let us indeed forge new ways of communicating with the utility customer, but let us not forget the more traditional means of correspondence.

Christopher Perdue
Vice President, Sierra Energy Group

Christopher Perdue's picture

Thank Christopher for the Post!

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