Making it real for utility customers

CenterPoint's Gregory Knight discusses challenges around customer engagement

Kate Rowland | Aug 16, 2012

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Gregory Knight, CenterPoint Energy's division vice president, customer services, was Intelligent Utility's 2011 KITE Award winner as Customer Service Leader of the Year. Not long ago, we asked him to discuss what he felt was the biggest challenge facing electric utilities' customer service departments today.

Here, in part, is what he told us. The full text of the article can be found in the July/August 2012 issue of Intelligent Utility magazine.

"I think the challenges are many in terms of the utility industry right now, as it relates to consumer engagement. It is well known that there's a range of diverging opportunities that are driving transformation. On the one hand, we have grid modernization initiatives, and our regulators are really holding us accountable to transform the consumer relationship and to make the smart grid relevant and real to consumers. On the other hand, we know that consumers have had a hard time understanding synchrophasing, switching and circuits. Thus, T&D technology enhancement is difficult for the average consumer to get their heads around when discussing the benefits of the intelligent grid," he wrote.

Knight went on: "So the best way for us to do that for consumers is to make it real to them. And how we make it real to them is we place an acute focus on the channels through which we interact with them like our Web, phone centers, text, mobile device, etc. Our big challenge right now is to really begin to develop the strategies that we're going to have to deploy to make the marriage between these channels and our back-end distribution systems relevant to consumers.

"Outside of that we have other challenges going on, those challenges around how we think about consumer engagement in general. I always like to say there's external and internal pressure: there's a push and a pull. We're being pulled in some ways by our consumers, and that's because our consumers are benchmarking us outside the utility industry around experience. So if I can pay my phone or cable bill, if I can go online and do trouble-shooting, these are the types of things that the telecom companies began to do years ago. You used to call AT&T if you had trouble on your line, and they'd say, 'Hold a minute and let me check your line.' We're being pulled by our consumers to innovate and transform in terms of how they interact with us by those expectations.

"On the flip side, we're being pushed by the regulators to drive greater efficiencies in terms of the reliability of our grid as well as providing consumers more information. The smart grid and the smart meters are one way to do that. But again, the way that we do that is through the channels in which we interact with consumers. So, more than ever before, you see us contemplating mobility, social media, Web interactions, and really thinking about how we react in our IVRs [interactive voice recognition] in such a way as to make these solutions more relevant for consumers, their expectations, and also delivering in terms of regulators' expectations.

"For example, at CenterPoint we have begun to offer multiple capabilities in our IVR. The challenge and the problem that we find is that there's only so much that you can add to the touch tone IVR before you reach a point of proliferation. Every time a consumer has to do something, they're drilling down another level in the IVR menu. At some point they get fatigued, and so they zero out, when they really want a self-service. One of the things we've contemplated at CenterPoint is using natural language capabilities in the IVR as one way for us to flatten that IVR experience out for the consumer, so that when a consumer calls in, they can just talk in their own language.

"There are a lot of things that we can offer them, but there's only so much you can offer a consumer on the traditional IVR platform until there are too many buttons and too much of a maze they have to go through," Knight said.

The 7th annual Knowledge2012 Utility Executive Summit will be held in Houston, Texas, this year, from Nov. 12-14. CenterPoint Energy is one of the Knowledge2012 host utilities.

Kate Rowland
Editor-in-chief, Intelligent Utility magazine
Energy Central
krowland@energycentral.com

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