Self-Service Strategy for Utilities -- A Step by Step Approach

Tripati Subudhi | May 22, 2012

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Introduction

Today, digital consumerism in on the rise through the rapidly evolving technology medium 'Internet' where customers prefer to get serviced at door step irrespective of the location with minimum effort, cost and time. Utility industry is also not an exception following the trend to offer excellent door step services to its customers.

Today's customer expects 24x7 hours of customer service from any utility company which is not limited to request for a new connection, get a billing question answered or to make an enrollment request in any energy efficiency program run by utilities, the way they need uninterrupted supply of services like electricity, gas or water. Self-service is the only reliable and cost-effective solution to address this customer demand without active presence of dedicated utility support personnel throughout.

The key developments a utility is motivated, encouraged and enforced to take this giant leap towards provisioning and providing self-service to its customers are:

  • 'Do-It-Yourself' service where information and control lies with the customers, resulting in an improved customer satisfaction with quick business value realization. With an effective back end automation to support web based capabilities, utilities can significantly reduce operational effort and its associated costs.

  • Keep pace with the ever growing customer base, demands and competitiveness.

  • Technology revolution with adoption of cross channel communication technologies like handheld mobile devices Smartphone, tablet computers, PDAs etc.

  • Regulatory compliance as guided by various government bodies.

While many utilities are trying to get equipped with the capabilities, they often find themselves in the crossroad while taking an effective decision. Few of the key challenges utilities facing today are:

  • What to offer and what not to within the specified budget and timeline?

  • What should be utility's stepped approach with changing market need and customer expectation?

  • What to choose and prioritize the self-service capabilities based on customer behavior, convenience and need.

  • How to decide on short and long term return on investment (ROI) based on various decision (self-service offerings) and to establish a correlation between the two?

  • Where to draw a line while providing the amount of information to the customers, Data Vs Information Vs Knowledge, as a result of which customer can make the practical use of the information provided.

Considerations

Any utility company needs to do a thorough assessment of some key considerations while formulating a strategy for its 'Self-Service' initiative. Some of those key considerations are:

Customer Engagement

  • Provide the customer an uninterrupted channel to communicate to utility through an interactive and simple platform

  • Empower the customer by sharing all the relevant, high impact information in a meaningful and result oriented manner

  • Availability of B2B functionality for various groups of non-customers such as contractors and other stakeholders

Operational Efficiency

  • Corresponding application (mirror image with additional capability) for the admin or internal users to address queries raised by customers

  • Reporting capability to study the customer behavior, interest and usage of self-service offerings

Regulatory Need

  • Meeting the regulatory guidelines E.g. Web Accessibility Compliance.

  • Providing information to the customers within the stipulated timeline E.g. outage status.

Business Benefits

  • Reach customers on various initiatives on sustainability front such as participation in energy efficiency programs, promoting electronic billing and payment etc.

  • Adopting a phase-wise approach while building a full-proof, scalable self-service web site and getting ready for the next phase while developing for the current phase to keep pace with the current competitive market need

Strategic Approach

Most of the times utilities get caught on the crossroad while deciding the future road map in terms of the level of self-service capability to be offered to their customers. Undeniably this is one of the tough decisions to define the boundary of scope that can be included in a self-service portal. Utilities need to take a conscious, well planned, balanced approach based on their investment ability while mounting on the pathway to self-service. Utilities must understand customer needs, market demands, analyze the business benefits and develop an optimal implementation plan considering the current technology trend to build a sustainable self-service portal.

Having understood the challenges mentioned above, utility should take a 'crawl, walk, run' approach while implementing the customer self-service portal. One of the recommended approaches to go forward has been explained below.

Phase-1 (Head Start)

  • Build a web platform - Platform and framework to be developed for the self-service portal

  • Technology Need

  • Platform should be capable and scalable to sustain existing as well as future forecasted load

  • Configurable and extensible design to accommodate frequent regulatory changes

  • Robust security for all kind of communication through the web site

  • Customer Need

  • Easy to transact with utility

  • Easy to locate and understand the information available

  • Efficient transactions with confirmatory result

  • Reliable and accurate information to be available

  • Consistency in the information and usability

  • Personalized and interactive web site

  • Easy access and clarity through CSR help for any issues encountered during a transaction

  • Availability of generic informational content on utility, its services, ongoing programs, future roadmap etc.

  • Information should be made available to customers to generate knowledge and awareness about the utility's services and how best customers can be benefitted from the same

  • Utility contact information

Phase-2 (Basic Capabilities)

  • Online Registration

  • Customer Sign Up

  • Customer Profile Management

  • Account Management

  • Overview of account specific information in dashboard format e.g. address, name, status etc.

  • Display of billing related information e.g. Usage, Payment amount, Payment due date etc.

  • Display of brief details about current billing cycle like usage consumption so far, projected usage and bill amount (applicable for smart meter or real time energy metering system)

  • Online Billing

  • Enrollment capability for online billing to view the electronic bill (soft copy)

  • View billing statements for a specified period of time

  • Download, e-mail capability to send the bill to customer

  • Reminder to the customer about the generation of statement

  • Online Payment and Automatic Payment System

  • Customer enrollment to make online payment or automatic payment

  • Enabling the customer to modify, reschedule or cancel the payment made online

Phase-3 (Services)

  • Service Requests

  • Move In/Move Out/Transfer requests

  • Remote Connect and Disconnect requests (applicable for smart meter customers)

  • Outage Management (outage reporting in data and map format)

  • Trouble order issuance capability by the customers

  • Usage Analytics

  • Usage reporting (like yearly, monthly, daily, hourly and customized reporting)

  • Usage comparison between two periods

  • Usage forecast or projection for the future

Phase-4 (Energy Management)

  • Availability of Energy Efficiency and Demand Response Programs through self-service

  • Enrollment to various energy efficiency program run by the utility

  • Participation in different demand response programs

  • Enabling customers to track, control and bid real time for various demand response programs

  • Ability to generate performance reports for the past demand response events

  • Capability to view and analyze the benefit achieved through participation in these programs

  • Enhanced Profile Management

  • Ability to set communication preference for each of the enrolled program

  • Ability to opt for various newsletter and promotional information

  • Availability of Savings Tips and tools

  • Availability of tool to conduct 'What-If' analysis to choose best suitable rate through Rate Analysis Tool

  • Allow customers to change their current rate to best suitable rate

  • Providing the energy saving tips and tools to the customers, as applicable based on their usage consumption pattern E.g. Budget assistant tool, Promoting energy saving devices etc.

Phase-5 (Advanced Features)

  • Customer Care

  • Guide the customers through multiple interactive ways such as

  • Online help through Index based information repository, predictive search and FAQ

  • Guided Help through Virtual Agent

  • Enabling customers to contact service representatives through 'Click to Chat', 'Click to Call'.

  • Converting websites from web-as-information-source (web 1.0) to web-as-participation-platform (web 2.0) leveraging web collaboration options like social networking sites, wikis, video sharing etc.

  • Availability of Forum, Blogs, Survey Questionnaires etc.

  • Enhanced customer experience

  • Enhancing usability and user experience through various advanced UI technologies

  • Making the portal available through multiple platforms such as mobile devices, tablets etc.

  • Making the portal cross-browser compatible with the ever changing browser demand in the market

  • Accessibility of the portal to all categories of customer bases which includes physically challenged users by making web accessible compliant

  • Leading the customer to the expected destination through Cross-Selling and Up-Selling

  • Enriching the portal with adequate functionality and information through a robust click-stream analytics



Conclusion

A thoughtful balance on Business, Customer, Operational and Regulatory requirements while designing a self-service portal will provide a robust long-term benefit to any utility keeping in pace with ever growing and changing customer base. These four perspectives determine company's vision and lead time to achieve a meaningful complete self-service transformation. It's paramount to plan, build a road map, foresee return on investment for one step, analyze benefits after realization, and then take the next step. Through this utility we will have an opportunity to enhance its customer relationships, deliver new, innovative services and lead the path in the utility sector service offering by differentiating through exemplary customer experience.

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