Web site reboot

Avista proves ROI of responsiveness

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine March/April 2010

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COMPANIES TAKE THE FIELD-of- dreams approach to Web-site design: ''If you build it, they will come.''

At Avista Utilities, we redesigned our site based on what people want to do once they get there. Such responsiveness proved to be a profitable approach. New online functionality saves our company nearly $400,000 annually.

At the same time, customer satisfaction has risen, and our site was ranked North America's top electric and natural gas utility web site in 2009, according to a benchmarking study from analysts at E Source, an industry research firm. Here are some of the steps we took to achieve our online successes.

Starting point

Avista Utilities has been supplying energy to customers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana for more than 120 years. Today, the utility serves 492,000 customers with gas, electricity or both commodities simultaneously.

Back in 2005, a few of us in the marketing department took a good look at our existing Web site and decided it needed updating. We also started talking to our customer service professionals to see if they had any upgrades in mind. They did, and the changes they wanted were big ones.

Other companies were reporting spectacular cost savings gained by giving customers online self-service options. For instance, Polaroid's Web-based customer service improvements saved $3.9 million, and American Airlines saved $3 million annually by automating two human resources functions, according to news accounts at the time.

Plus, consumers were coming to expect self-service options, and our contact center staff wanted to provide them. They knew that opening or closing accounts, signing up for billing options, making payment arrangements and other routine transactions could easily be done online at a customer's convenience.

But as we began looking at these types of functionality, it became clear that we couldn't do such things with our existing Web-site technology. We weren't merely looking at a rede-sign project. We were looking at rebuilding our site to transform it from a content-presentation tool into a transactional business channel.

Getting there

The changes we sought take money, and the funds we targeted were known at our utility as ''productivity capital,'' dollars senior management allocates to projects that cut corporate costs. In order to be eligible to receive the money, project planners must provide a business case that demonstrates a minimum return on investment of at least 11 percent. This was our goal with the site rebuild, as well as our final return on investment from this project.

It was a cross-departmental team of marketing, customer service and information services (IS) employees who initially created the business case we presented to management. Once we secured our funding, we created another cross-departmental team, led by a project manager who reported to the chief executive officer of our company, and also included the company president, the chief financial officer and the vice presidents who were responsible for customer service and marketing functions.

We found executive sponsorship for this undertaking was vital to efficient success. With top-level support and commitment, better cooperation exists among players as well as clear direction to resolve issues and access to resources to get the project done. Other lessons we learned include:

Find the right experts

Our team faced two big challenges in finding the right partner to help with this initiative. First, we had both design and programming needs. Many companies have either artistic or technical strength, but not both, so we had to find a vendor that could handle Web-site design, programming and, in our case, integration with other utility systems, such as the customer information system.

Another issue we faced was integrating content from multiple servers. Today, two of our most popular features are the bill analyzer and energy analyses tools we purchased from a major North American software solutions provider, and we wanted to embed the provider's programming into our own site. At the time, some utilities were simply linking to these analysis applications.

We determined that we needed a company with design capabilities and a background in writing Web services, which are Web-enabled machine-to-machine protocols that allow software developers to combine functionality from multiple sources into an integrated application. To ensure that we got all the skills and integration we needed, we had our vendor selection team include members from our marketing, customer service and IT departments. Vendors said this was unusual but, by following this process, we found the right vendor for the job.

Follow best practices

Our Avista team also incorporated guidance on site features and architecture by purchasing an energy business intelligence report that showed consumer expectations and evaluations of Web sites. Based on the research, we took care to:

  • Make transactions easy. According to energy business intelligence experts, the simple task of making a payment can be a tough chore on many Web sites. Self-service options now play a major role in how well or poorly consumers rate a company's online presence.
  • Keep log-ins and other vital links prominent and simple. Customers should be able to find the log-in link on your home page. In fact, they should be able to reach their target destination in one or two clicks.
  • Test the site on real customers. We repeatedly walked customers through ''wireframes,'' which are skeleton depictions of the site's structure and navigation links. If customers couldn't easily find the site features we asked them to find, we reworked navigation.

Spread the word

Web site improvements are useless unless customers come to visit. Even though we launched our rebuilt site in late 2007, we continue to promote it. For example, in the first quarter of 2009, a simple campaign that included bill stuffers and online banners drove some 4,000 customers to complete online energy audits.

Knowledge to dollars

When customers have insights into their energy use at their fingertips, they're less likely to call the contact center. We know this because we see it happen. For example, the bill analysis tool breaks down the customer's bill, explaining how many days there were between visits from the meter reader, what the weather was, and how the month's bill compares to bills a month or a year before.

In 2009, 87,000 customers looked into their bills online, and 63,000 of  them used the bill analysis tool. This translated into fewer billing questions and high-bill inquiries coming into our contact center. In fact, customers' decisions to access billing information online translated into approximately 7,000 calls annually that our call-center representatives didn't have to answer last year. Customers are getting their questions answered through the bill analyzer.

Meanwhile, nearly 17,000 residential users took the time to explore their household energy use with the energy analyses tool, and 62 percent of those customers filled out personalized home profiles. Some 44 percent went a step further. Along with the home profile, they also filled out an appliances inventory. And, 27 percent of those customers returned to the energy analyses tool multiple times.

Consumers like having this type of information available, and providing it gives our brand a boost. ''Awesome changes to your Web site and online payment site,'' one customer wrote to us when the new site went live. ''I have two accounts, and now I can pay them easily without having to sign in separately.''

Echoing that thought, yet another said, ''Your new Web site is just great. I enjoy every feature of it, especially the opportunity to analyze energy consumption.''

Seeing thumbs up

To track how we're doing, we regularly use an online customer-satisfaction survey application. Between our old site and new one, our score rose from 73 to 76 points. In comparison, the average utility scores only 62 points.

A score that really stands out for us is what our survey application calls ''future behaviors,'' which measures how many survey respondents say they'll return to the site. Our score rose from 82 to 88, a significant jump.

Many of those site visitors are taking advantage of our online self-service tools. They're signing up for special billing options, making payment arrangements, paying their bills and more.

All told, we've transferred 10 percent of our call-center volume to online self-service, a percentage that represents 133,000 calls each year. This saves Avista money and empowers our customers, which is a big part of the value that transactional functionality brings. We wouldn't be seeing our current volume of site visits if customers didn't like helping themselves online.

This article was written by Dana Anderson and Scott Steele

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