Becoming More Interactive With Your Customers

Scott Braynard | Jul 23, 2009

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In today's challenging economy, the business of utility providers is about more than energy supply and competitive pricing. Increasingly, we find that the utility companies who are rising to the top are those who provide valuable customer service, thereby retaining and growing a loyal customer base, and those who can implement a cost savings strategy automating regulatory compliance in the document-production workflow.

Traditionally, the term "customer service" was synonymous with the words "call center". However, today's customers are demanding more than a 1-800 number and long wait times to speak with a representative. They are looking for an interactive experience in which the utility company isn't just problem-solving, but rather proactively anticipating their needs, considering their budgets and providing them with quality service.

Just a Phone Call Away

The mission of a call center is to problem-solve and provide support to a company's customers. And, the communication is typically reactive. A customer receives an unexpected high bill, their electricity gets shut off or they're having trouble reading and understanding their last billing statement. These and more customer inquiries and issues can easily flood a utility company's call center and become extremely time-consuming.

When a customer calls, the person who answers the phone should be able to answer at least 80 to 90 percent of the customer's questions. This takes training, but it also takes a reliable system that can provide a detailed, real-time view of customer records and the right solutions to solve their problems. Incurring technical limitations due to legacy system applications can create difficulty for companies when trying to respond to rapidly evolving business requirements and market conditions. Trouble with document recovery or an inefficient archival system will only create barriers in creating a positive experience for a company's customers.

The days of the traditional call centers and legacy systems are long gone. Now, utility providers can engage in an interactive dialogue with the customer while building a customized document in real-time. Accessing a live application to build customer documents can allow providers the opportunity to create unique, personalized documents; ultimately, increasing a customer's satisfaction and decreasing the number of inbound calls received, saving time and money for both the customer and the utility provider.

Balancing Budgets

Beyond the call center, success lies in the provider's ability to leverage customer needs with the company's budget. A company's internal costs including staffing for the high volume of calls to its call center or the timely creation, processing and recovery of bills can add up quickly. Though it may seem like the last move most companies would like to make, identifying and communicating cost savings for customers can yield higher revenues in the long term. By interacting with your customers, companies can take advantage of the unique opportunity to listen to their customers' needs and wants -- such as accurate and timely billing information and simple explanations of new pricing or payment models -- and provide personalized information or conservation tips to each customer.

Imagine how a customer might feel if their local utility company contacted them about a recent spike in their water usage before the billing cycle closed. The customer might then notice they have a leak in their sprinkler system and fix it. Utility companies can now link their systems to communicate directly with real-time meters and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) data through an on-demand application that can be set up to automatically e-mail their customers when an anomaly is observed. By utilizing this type of on-demand application, companies can begin to change the dialogue with their customers from reactive to proactive.

Additional proactive dialogue such as providing customers with tips each month on how they can save energy, or encouraging customers to go paperless with electronic billing statements to benefit the environment, provides a positive impression to the customer. Not only can this remind them of the utility provider's environmental efforts, it shows the customer that the provider is making a conscious effort to benefit them by finding cheaper ways to be more productive overall.

Quality Service = Customer Retention

What customers really want is quality service. By engaging in more proactive, customer-centric communications, companies will begin to see higher customer loyalty and retention rates. Recognizing that not all customers are the same is important; customers can range based on their energy consumption, location and more. Utility companies need to take note of these differences and communicate based on the individual customer. For example, with on-demand applications in place, California utility customers affected by the rolling brownouts could have been identified beforehand utilizing smart grid technology to notify those with high energy usage through a text message, preventing many problems from occurring.

By interacting in a continued dialogue, utility companies can create organic experiences for their customers. And, as a result, customers will begin to view their utility company as more than a provider, but also a reliable and trusted resource.

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