Historically, the relationship between utility companies and their customers has been lacklustre. Despite the fact that access to utilities is a boon to quality of life, customers see it as a given: Data suggests that customers spend just eight minutes per year interacting with their energy providers digitally and 11 minutes chatting with representatives. In other words, utilities remain out of mind — at least until problems arise.
When these issues do occur, providers also have a reputation for following outdated, frustrating, or costly workflow models for offering and implementing solutions. And unfortunately, customer service is also viewed as a cost driver instead of a revenue generator. This means that as utility companies grew larger and more siloed over the years, it became much more difficult for them to provide seamless customer experience.
Is it any wonder, then, why 48% of customers think utility companies don’t care about lowering costs and that just one-third believe they provide "fair rates and service?"
Good news is on the horizon, though: Companies are beginning to leverage design thinking and put customers first. Thanks to the emergence of incredibly convenient services from companies such as Uber, Netflix, and Amazon, today’s customers expect more from all companies — including those supplying utilities. They want to personalize their user experience, and for utility providers to intuitively understand their needs. This creates a wonderful opportunity for companies to transform customer connections by leveraging artificial intelligence.
Big Data Brings Big Value to Users
AI-powered technology plays a role in helping utility companies further understand data and engage with customers. This is true during different segments of the customer journey, from the time customers begin searching for information about a service to when they provide feedback to their utility companies.
Because AI can find meaningful patterns in varying data trends, it helps utilities provide users with the messages they need to hear — right when they need to hear them. This marks a significant change from a time when customers could expect little proactivity or personalization from providers.
What does this type of AI-augmented customer experience look like in action? On the most basic level, it changes the way customers interact with utility providers.
Today, contact centres can be automated so that customers no longer have to wait for available agents. Instead, users can interact with responder bots programmed to understand query intents and fetch relevant data. These bots can be taught to understand the vocal emotions and urgency of a caller as well as track social channels for solutions. When it comes to AI, 86% of utility companies have already begun to test the waters. Despite this, AI is far more than a speedy way to field inquiries and free up time. It’s a means to anticipate — and avoid — other aggravating situations.
For example, when customers don’t receive bills on time, they become anxious. As they begin to phone the utility company to complain, call volumes increase significantly. AI-enhanced systems learn from these events and can help uncover the underlying obstacle (in this case, the problem might be that software isn’t communicating as it should).
Armed with this information, AI might recommend a different protocol: It can ensure that meter data is accepted by billing engines without the need for agents to manually check it before bills are sent.
By adopting a sense, think, respond, and learn framework, utility companies can enhance customer experience and loyalty. Here, the emphasis should be on combining emerging technologies to offer a personalized, highly convenient experience. When it comes to utility-focused advances in AI, three specific areas are ripe for disruption: billing, personalized solutions, and revenue creation.
Here’s how each relates to customer experience:
1. Saved costs for customers.
Customers never want to be blindsided by higher-than-usual bills. By taking previous data into account, AI can predict when customers’ consumption is likely to skyrocket. This makes it possible for customers to take remedial measures or for utility companies to notify customers proactively when abnormal patterns are detected.
AI can also arm representatives with relevant data whenever customers inquire about similar issues. Helping customers resolve unexpected billing headaches shows compassion and concern — two attributes any company should aim for.
Besides this, AI holds promise in that it can help identify supply quality issues and detect meter problems, all without costly service visits.
2. Improved understanding of customer behavior.
Knowing when a customer is likely to call based on past habits, consumption patterns, call records, and payment histories can inform customer service agents far before the call takes place. This predictive information gives agents a chance to either prepare for calls or head them off.
Evaluating historical sequences also allows marketers to segment customers and offer individualized plans. This could involve promoting solar- or green-based initiatives to the right audience, for example. It could also mean matching individuals to a specific plan that aligns with their usage patterns in order to lower their costs.
Utility companies can also try their hand at gamification. Although high utility bills are a matter of concern for customers, gamification helps reduce bills by engaging them and their families through fun activities and simulations.
Additionally, AI could prove incredibly helpful when it comes to competition among utility providers. In markets where customers can freely choose among utilities, AI can help predict when they’re likely to switch to a different provider — allowing companies to take preventive action.
3. Stronger sales pipelines for cross-selling and upselling.
With AI in place, utility salespeople and marketing teams can optimize their spend to more effectively target high-value customers. These are the users most likely to want additional utility and non-utility services and products. This ease of identification helps utility companies move from a digital to a highly intelligent enterprise.
Utility providers have long to go before AI becomes truly integrated into their operations. However, that simply means they have more potential to revolutionize the experiences they deliver.
Anjan Lahiri has been in the Utilities sector for 2 decades. He has led several industry change implementations in AI, Smart Metering and Renewable Energy and has worked with clients across the Power, Water and Gas Sectors internationally. His current interest areas include federated utility model, asset and data monetization, new revenue services, solar and batteries, virtual power plants, EVs and community solutions.