Multi-channel Customer Connect for a successful Smart Metering roll-out

Kasturika Supkar | Apr 14, 2010

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Introduction

Utility industry today is going through a transformation today as a result of increasing worldwide demand for energy, coupled with regulatory/government mandate for energy conservation. Many of them are turning to pilots for Smart Metering deployment even for the mass market customers. Apart from long-term benefits of allowing the customer to manage their energy, it is important to analyze how Smart Metering can be leveraged to create an enhanced customer experience.

This article discusses some of the changes in contact center processes that utilities must deploy in order to fully leverage the capabilities of the Smart meter to have a highly satisfied customer. It also throws up some new innovative techniques across other channels like web, IVR, SMS, etc that can be deployed to reduce utility costs while still maintaining the same enhanced customer connect. This article is not a full-blown analysis of customer service impact as a result of Smart metering, but focuses more on how utilities should adopt new processes across multiple channels for a successful Smart metering roll-out.



Establishing Customer Connect

As utilities deploy their first Smart metering pilot programs, it is very important to establish greater customer connect initially in order to ensure that customers also realize the benefits that these new smart devices can bring in. Smart metering is an emerging area, and many customers today don't understand how this can benefit them long-term in reducing their energy usage and lower bills. Many feel that this is just another way for a utility to monitor what their consumers are doing at their homes, and control their energy usage.

Utilities need to invest more in educating their customers and creating a positive customer experience as they start implementing their Smart metering programs. Primary channels for education can be contact center, web, and IVR, whereas bill inserts, television channels, newspaper advertisements, etc are other alternate mechanisms. One cannot expect an AMI program to give return on investment, or lower customers contact costs from the very beginning. On the other hand, utilities must spend more initially in order to engage the customer in the process of energy management, and change their behavior from passive to active for a successful AMI deployment.

Impact to Contact Center, the front line for Customer Connect

Most customers today still would prefer to talk to a contact center representative when they have a question about their utility bill. As humans, we trust a voice to be more believable than a bill insert, or an IVR message. Therefore it is very important that utilities enhance the customer experience for the Smart metering pilot customers in order to make the first impression.

Impacted Contact Center Procedures

The diagram below illustrates some of the highly impacted contact center procedures that would need to be revised for smart metering deployments.



Move In/Move Out

Since now the move in order does not have to wait for a field order for move in read to be completed, the CSR can actually schedule a specific date and time for the enrollment, on customer preference. This will enhance customer experience, as the customer does not have to wait for meter read to be completed before getting enrolled, as well as reduce the average cost for utility to service a move in order. While taking a move in call, the call center representative should be explaining the possible pricing/rate options to the new customer. This process can impact the AHT for move in/move out calls, till the time the regular customer is well educated on the new pricing options. The same benefits are extended to the move out order as well.

Remote Connect/Disconnect

One of the highest unessential costs utilities incur is for field orders to disconnect a meter, only to end up reconnecting it again in few days once the consumer has paid the bill. Though this is a necessary evil in order to maintain the revenue collection cycle, it usually results in high customer dissatisfaction when the reconnection order cannot be scheduled as per their preference because of overbooking of field crew. With smart metering now the remote re-connect procedure can be handled by the call center representatives once the customer has made the required payment. This results in a significant positive customer experience, since they don't have to go without power waiting for the reconnect field order.

Outage Management

With Smart metering and smart grid, the call center reps will now have much more information on the nature of outage, coverage area, possible restoration time, etc. With GIS emerging as a big area for investment by utilities, contact center reps will have more access to information and applications to provide more accurate and detailed information to customers, for enhanced customer experience. The AHT for these calls would go down in the long run, as the CSR does not have to make field calls to find out status and can track things online with adequate system information.

Pricing/Rate plans

With Smart metering, utilities will now capture usage data at more frequent intervals, which allows them to roll-out multiple new time-based options for pricing/rate plan structures to the consumers. With more complex pricing structures, the CSR will now need more tools/options to be able to educate the customer on the `best plan' suitable for them based on their historical usage pattern. This might mean more `Rate comparison' tools for bill analysis for prorated customer bill while on Rate A vs Rate B. This will increase the AHT for these calls as customers will take more time understanding/weighing their options before making the final choice. More pricing/rate options will also trigger higher volume of rate plan change calls to the contact center. More training for the call center representatives to get familiar with the new plans, and effective customer education will play a key role in making the roll-out of the new rate plans successful.

Bill Inquiry

More complex rate structures will mean more call volumes to the contact center for addressing bill inquiry questions. As customers try to understand their more complicated bills, and CSRs get familiar with recommending the right rate plan to consumers, there would be an increase in calls in this category initially. However in the long run with greater billing accuracy, less bill estimation/proration, the number of bill inquiry calls will reduce. There will be need for display of detailed hourly usage/consumption patterns and bill analytics. The higher volume of hourly usage data will also mean more time for the CSR to analyze the usage/bill pattern and explain it to the customer. Introduction of `Bill Comparison Analysis' tools can play an effective role in easing the process for these calls, and enhancing customer experience. With smart metering, CSRs can also use `On Request Read' to get immediate reads to quickly resolve billing issues, which leaves a very positive impact on customers.

Estimation/Proration

The more complex rate structures and time sensitive billing will mean more complicated procedures for estimation/proration in case readings for a particular period are missing because of system failure. Automating the proration logic to the maximum extent possible, as well as educating the CSRs to effectively communicate the same to the consumer will go a long way in maintaining the desired customer satisfaction.

Prepaid Metering

The roll-out of prepaid metering will increase with the advent of smart devices. This will mean change in processes for CSRs to offer these options to high credit risk customers at the time of enrollment, notifications once threshold limit is reached as well as processes for recharging the prepaid services in order to continue the service. Today's existing payment posting batch processes might need modification in order to support real-time nature of prepayment services.

Prepaid metering will definitely reduce the volume of outbound collection calls. However the call time for enrollment will go up initially as CSRs try to explain the benefits of this option to customers. Till the time the customers get used to their regular usage pattern, call volumes to contact center will also go up for recharging the prepaid services once the threshold balance is reached.

Prepay meters allow customers the choice to manage how much energy they will consume, rather than knowing the bill after the fact end of the month. Industry averages quote that pre-pay customers use 15-20% less energy than conventional users - lower bills definitely improve customer satisfaction.

Demand Response Notifications

As utilities roll out new demand response programs tied with time sensitive pricing models, adequate business processes need to be in place for notifications to customer to reduce usage during peak periods. This would mean customer connect process for notification to customer, their acceptance to participate, and appropriate billing process to handle the event. Appropriate deployment of this process can go a long way in consumers managing their bill, as well as the utility managing resources in events of peak demand.

Energy Efficiency Programs

Utilities are also rolling out energy efficiency programs to promote less energy usage and award customers for the same. Some of these programs are also regulatory mandated and funded. This needs an entirely new set of processes for rolling out new programs, managing the enrollment process, verification, subsequent customer incentive/billing, managing overall program funds, etc. All these put additional burden on utility processes. However they provide customer incentive to reduce energy usage and reward deserving consumers for energy efficient equipment purchases.

The diagram below summarizes the impact of the various processes we discussed along the four angles of utility metrics -- AHT, Call Volume, Utility cost, and Customer Satisfaction.



Though AHT and Call volume are impacted in some cases because of the new processes, the utility cost does go down in all cases as there are no field orders anymore to service the request. All the new processes result in providing the customer with more choices, enhanced customer experience as well as better energy management.

Extending Customer Connect Channels

After the initial roll-out once the customer is more educated, the utility must start promoting the AMI program across other channels like web, and IVR. This will reduce man-power cost, reduce utility costs and provide better return on investment on the Smart metering deployment.

Leverage Web Channel (Portal, Email, Chat)

Consumers today are more internet savvy, and web can act as a cost-effective option to extend the contact center processes as self-service to the customers. For example, the following services provided over the web portal can reduce the number the calls to the contact center.



With today's internet savvy customers, provision for sending emails and online chat are also popular channels to provide cost-effective customer service over web. Email is a great channel to be utilized for requests that can be handled in offline mode. Similarly portal monitoring software can help notify utilities that a customer is taking too much time doing a web transaction, and so might need help -- prompting them for a chat session immediately to solve their issue is a great way of grabbing their attention.

Leverage IVR Channel

Utilities currently rolling out AMI pilots are considering changing their contact center and web portal processes to leverage benefits of smart metering, however IVR still remains not a widely considered option for change.

In current world, IVR acts as the first line when the customer calls into the contact center, however not many utilities have considered re-organizing their inbound IVR channel for the new AMI world. For example, deployment of some of the following processes could enhance customer experience for inbound customer calls.



Using data analytics to understand customer pattern, and then predicting possible reason for customer call, and suitable IVR choice options is an emerging trend, and most utilities are still far from deploying it effectively. For example, if a prepay customer was notified for threshold balance, and he calls in to the contact center, the system could possibly throw up `Recharge Prepay' as the first option for the customer to choose. If customer can find his most likely choice first, he will complete the process faster and the AHT for the call will be lesser.

Not many utilities today leverage outbound IVR as a notification mechanism. Outbound IVR can act as a strong cost effective mechanism for customer contact. Though web and email still act as primary channels for notification, voice notification can also be a great cost-effective differentiator especially when customers are not online, and events are immediate.

For e.g. in case of a unplanned power outage, sending outage notification via email or displaying outage map in web portal does not mean much to the consumer. However, if the utility takes the effort to make an outbound automated IVR call to the customer's home, explaining the outage and expected restoration time, it can go a long way in having a highly satisfied customer.

Similarly in case of demand response events where time is crucial, incase customer is not monitoring emails, he might miss out an important event. If the utility leaves a voice message for the customer on their primary contact number, it is a definite method of communication.

The following diagrams lists out some of the innovative processes that can be newly established through outbound IVR channels for enhanced customer connect.



However outbound IVR also has privacy concerns from some customers, who might not want to be disturbed in an important meeting, to get an automated message from their utility. Therefore it is important to capture customer contact preference for outbound IVR appropriately. For e.g. the customer might want informational automated messages like Move in/Move out confirmation, or planned outage information to be directed to their home phones, where voice message can be recorded. However for important demand response notifications, they might want to be contacted on their primary mobile number.

Leverage Mobile Devices and SMS

Mobile hand-held devices and SMS are also becoming highly popular channels for customer contact. Many of the options for web self-service can be extended over mobile devices and SMS -- however the utility must focus on which ones a consumer is likely to use while on the move. For example the following stand out as some of the key options that an `on-the-go' customer might like to see on their mobile device

  • Account balance after new bill is available
  • Option for bill payment
  • Allow reconnect once bill payment is received
  • Demand response notifications and participation confirmation
  • Outage notifications with expected restoration times
  • Utilities should leverage both inbound and outbound SMS to reap full benefits of this channel. Complicated user interfaces like `rate analysis' and `bill comparison' tools are best offered on the web only.

    Leverage Retail Stores/Kiosk

    Bill payment kiosks in shopping centers is another common channel that utilities can use to establish customer connect while consumers are tackling their everyday chores. These can also be used as education centers for customers to understand the new options better.

    Conclusion

    The benefits of a Smart metering program for an enhanced customer experience is apparent, but utilities need to establish new procedures to reap the benefits. While the largest impacts to the customer connect process would be in the contact center, the key is to adapt innovative practices across multiple channels to increase customer satisfaction, improve service quality, lower utility costs and manage energy demand.

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    Comments

    A strategy to exploit smart metering for a less-than-smart purpose. What's really needed under emerging services is using smart metering to implement a genuinely competitive free market in which anyone can be both buyer and seller.