Out-thinking the storm – improving the customer experience

Predicting and managing outages with transparent communication will lead to a better customer experience.
Published: Thu 09 Jun 2016

When a storm hits – whether it is a snowstorm or an electrical storm accompanied by high winds and rain – energy and utility companies are challenged to maintain service to customers.

Trees falling on lines, flooding, short circuits and other damage can all lead to failure and outages. Utilities have started to install advanced technologies such as smart grid sensors and microgrids that can isolate and minimize the impact of such outages. But still there will be some customers who are affected and will value being informed on issues such as the extent and nature of damage and the likely recovery time.

Utilities that fail in this task risk breeding frustration and anger, but those that rise to the challenge have the potential to gain customers who are satisfied and loyal.

Adapting to industry trends

Digitalization and decentralization are providing a ‘perfect storm’ for the energy sector.

On the one hand these trends are demanding that utilities build closer relationships with their customers as they look to provide new products and services based on the ability to analyze energy usage data in real time. On the other, these trends are leading to growing customer expectations similar to those experienced in other sectors such as banking and telecoms. At the same time they are providing the tools to meet these, with the potential for both new levels of personalization and new channels of engagement.

For example, more people are using mobile devices and social media than ever. More than half of customers prefer to use mobile as their main channel of communication, with the number one reason being convenience, according to the mobile website platform Usablenet. By 2018, 50% of all consumers will interact with services based on cognitive computing on a regular basis, IDC expects.

Recognizing these advances, over three-quarters of utilities planned to monitor customer comments made on social media to generate new ideas, an IBM Institute for Business Value study found. According to IDC, almost one third of companies are planning to buy new customer care systems or upgrade their systems.

Still, there is a long way to go. A 2014 Booz Allen Hamilton study found that only 20% of utility websites included features that allow customers to monitor their energy usage, and only 26% of US electric utilities had mobile applications and functions.

Aligning to customer expectations

This is an area in which utilities need to step with boldness but care. The mindset of today’s customer can seem contradictory. On the one hand, customers have little problem serving themselves, but they also desire a more personalized service. A global market study of 2,750 customers by Fast Company showed that 70% expect a company website to include a self-service application for handling questions and complaints. But customers also expect personalized interactions and offers.

The benchmark has been set by companies like Amazon, where customers experience personalized recommendations and fluid interactions. As Paul Papas, IBM Global Leader for Interactive Experience points out: “The last best experience anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.”

To meet these expectations, utilities must engage with customers as individuals, which is fundamentally a retail customer engagement model. Building an automated system of customer engagement that is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week, provides seamless experience across channels, learns over time and knows the customer as an individual through a ‘360-degree view’ is required.

Tools for customer engagement

At the heart of such solutions is analytics to exploit the multiple sources of data which are available across the company and even externally.

For example, to gain a 360-degree view of the customer requires synthesizing customer profiles, sales history and other data.

Based on data, a utilities company can usually determine that John T. Smith and J.T. Smith are the same person. They could also determine that John is married to Mary, they live on Elm Street and that their energy usage goes up during the summer because they run air conditioning. The 360-degree view reveals that Mary called four times to ask about solar incentives, John posted comments about the responses in an online forum, and that Mary has just tweeted questions about a competitor’s solar offering. Now the utility knows that John and Mary are at risk of going to a competitor and can respond with a personalized customer-service email or a phone call with a targeted offer.

With the 360-degree view, customers may be engaged with as individuals, developing trusted relationships and improving customer loyalty. With better segmentation and deeper understanding of customers, the right customers can be targeted with the right offers at the right time. They can be provided with high bill alerts or offers and tips tailored on their consumption, for example.

Watching the weather

With the emergence of more frequent extreme weather events and the need to integrate growing levels of renewable energies, utilities are increasingly introducing weather forecasting capabilities, either in-house or from external sources. New business opportunities include being able to predict where weather-related outages are most likely to occur, pre-positioning field crews to restore power if necessary and proactive, ongoing communication with affected customers – all adding up to a positive customer experience at an otherwise uncertain time.

“With the right tools utilities can create a personal connection with each individual they serve, thus enabling satisfaction, loyalty and even collaboration,” says Vickie Dorris, Cognitive Solution Leader, IBM Global Energy & Utilities.


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