Revenue and debt collection is an ever-present costly issue for energy companies.
Consider the case of a major European energy supplier. Every month, the electric utility chases 900,000 customers for outstanding payments, a process that was costing time and money and without any measurement of effectiveness.
The energy company set out its brief to technology partners - an automated customer communication system that would allow it to manage the late payment process and cut the cost to service.
It wanted to deliver over 195,000 reminders an hour that were personalised and upgradeable, and to modify campaigns in real time. And it also wanted to analyse the efficiency of reminders to reduce working capital.
The utility chose to work with Prosodie-Capgemini, which delivered its Odigo solution.
The platform allows the energy sector player to receive, sort and process customer documents, deliver multichannel reminders, provide a human machine interface for notifications, and transmit return files, making it possible to extract data according to certain criteria.
It also bolted on Odigo Campaign, software that allows the energy company to process voice messages and texts, as well as a voice application to give customers a variety of self-service choices, particularly for online payment.
Customer communication channels
Ann Schwemler, EVP Business Services Energy & Utilities at Capgemini, says the project is a great example of an energy company that understands the need to use different channels to manage the interactions with the customer throughout the meter-to-cash process.
Schwemler says a utility should deploy whatever customer communication channels are necessary to engage each individual customer, which will ultimately help with revenue collection and customer retention.
“If you take it down to key principles, customer engagement is simple and a lot of energy companies have tried to really overcomplicate things.
“Put yourself in your customer's shoes, understand who they are and what are the right contact channels to communicate with them to really look at reducing the cost to serve.”
In Schwemler’s experience, large business-to-business customers prefer voice contact - “they want contact with someone that represents their account at a time when is convenient for them”.
For business to consumer customers, millennials prefer using their smartphones to communicate with an energy company, while other demographics still want to call in to speak to a customer care representative.
“The technology is out there to make multi-channel communication happen,” she says.
“By using technology to replace an agent handling simple calls, energy company staff can focus on the more value-added services such as consumption patterns and payment options or on escalations and emergencies.”
“Some customers like interactive voice response and some don't but this is a technology that won’t go away. But it requires simplification so that the navigation allows the customer to get resolution or to the right place faster.”
Web chat is becoming very popular, says Schwemler, as well as social media and self-serve web portals, where customers can go in and quickly do something simple like an enrollment. And Capgemini is observing that smart forms and the ability to sign up is taking precedence over phoning in or faxing details.
She adds: “Trying to get the information right the first time - which typically a customer can provide - is benefiting both the customer and the energy provider.”
Schwemler also comments on the need for an energy company to segment its customer base to improve the customer experience across the meter-to-cash process.
“In our experience, utilities’ perception of their segments has not necessarily been correct and there's not been a lot of focus on their segments. The maturity in this area is probably still to be improved.”
Cutting cost to serve - billing and customer care
An understanding of who the customer is and how to communicate with them is helping two energy companies to reduce their cost to serve, says Schwemler.
One embarked on a three-year customer experience transformation programme using Capgemini’s Odigo, a cloud-based multi-channel, contact centre, telephony and integration service.
The utility’s goals were to improve brand image and its customer satisfaction score while reducing operational costs.
The organisation started out with a call centre of 1,100 staff plus up to 500 additional staff to support peaks such as during major outages.
Automating billing and customer care channels have resulted in a reduction in call centre costs of 30% due to a decrease in number of staff and no additional representatives during peaks.
While a ‘drive to web’ programme resulted in an increase in self-service customers from less than 30% to 60%.
Another North American utility has seen improved bill accuracy to 99.98%, producing a material cost reduction, according to Capgemini data.
Meter to cash - getting the data right
The latter client example illustrates the importance of billing accuracy and the integrity of meter data, says Schwemler.
Meter accuracy is typically well over 98% so a faulty meter is a misnomer, she says. “When a customer calls in to say they've got meter issues or a high bill, it's really a mistrust of the meter.”
Schwemler suggests one way to help customers to overcome this mistrust is with alerts.
“Providing alerts that the customer’s consumption is somewhat abnormal is being proactive and that can be done via SMS, text, email, auto dialer, depending on the preference of the customer.”
Also running analytics on data period over period to ensure that it is complete is critical, she says. “There are a lot of enabling tools to validate the accuracy and completeness.
“Then the energy company can identify those true exceptions that need to be investigated whether to ensure the meter is functioning or communicating, or looking at issues in the underlying data collection systems.”
Merging customer bases - automating processes
Schwemler believes that meter data accuracy, offering customers a choice of communication channels and proper segmentation are the three pillars that uphold an effective meter to cash process.
Concepts, she believes, that are becoming more relevant as the energy market continues to consolidate.
“We are seeing a lot of acquisitions in the marketplace and a merging of customer bases. Energy companies are really looking for solutions to harmonise processes.
“They need solutions to simplify or integrate new customers in a seamless and more efficient way.”