Despite the many benefits of smart grid technology, the past year has seen its fair share of consumer backlash with some customers viewing smart meters as simply mechanisms that over charge for electricity. The problem is many people still don’t really know what the smart grid is and how it can improve one’s energy consumption and costs. A recent Pike Research survey found that the more familiar consumers were with smart meters, the more favorable their views. But, according to the same survey, overall familiarity with smart grid remains low. This is actually good news for utilities. It confirms that the window for winning over customers is still open and that utilities can still get ahead of the learning curve when it comes to smart grid customer education and service.
The customer service opportunity
As a global contact center provider, our experience is that most of the calls into the utility contact center are fairly simple customer care transactions focused on billing, transfers of service and requests for payment extensions. With smart grid, however, the day in the life of a utility customer service agent will change. Contact center agents will need to take a more complex, technical, consultative approach to help customers understand their new utility bills, troubleshoot Home Area Network issues and discuss more complex product and pricing models. No longer limited to monthly meter reads, utility agents will have vast amounts of customer data like never before. The volume, timeliness and accuracy of information provided by smart meters will completely change utility customer service and support.
Further, utility agents will need to take on an educator role to better prepare customers for smart grid implications. As one example, take the remote connect/disconnect and disconnect/reconnect capability of utilities. This will definitely require a re-education of the customer so that those who are remotely disconnected due to non-payment will not be surprised. According to a TELUS-sponsored IDC Energy Insights white paper published last year, utilities are anticipating increases in call volume and extended call duration for the first two years after smart meter deployment, just to handle disconnect/reconnect issues. This is just one example of how customer service will change and where investment in customer education and related agent skill sets will be required.
The new smart grid customer
Many utilities have been preoccupied with the implementation of physical infrastructure and have not considered customer education, service and engagement. That is starting to change as utilities realize a more proactive approach serves them well during this time of great transition. The key is to start simple and train agents to answer basic smart grid questions – even starting with “what is it?” Finding more agents may also be required. The TELUS-sponsored IDC Energy Insights white paper found that 35 per cent of utility respondents were already noting increases in call volume. To provide a good customer service experience, it’s important for utilities to hire skilled, consultative agents that can dive deeper into billing issues as well as recommend solutions.
In the past, utilities have been able to manage customer service demands internally using in-bound phone support or paper correspondence—namely the bill insert. Now customers will look to engage with their utilities on a more regular basis to understand time-of-use billing and manage their energy consumption. Utilities will be required to re-examine their customer service options to meet demands for convenient support hours and preferred communications channels like phone, email, chat and even social media. Special attention should be paid to online support as more customers move their business decisions and transactions to the web. According to the same white paper, only 60 per cent of utilities reported having a web portal that customers could access for service and only 10 per cent of utility respondents offered live chat. Again, lots of opportunity for forward-looking utilities to enhance their customer service offering.
With the changing nature of the customer-utility relationship, utilities have an opportunity to proactively educate their customers in advance of smart meter deployments. Including a plan for smart customer service can go a long way to winning over customers and greatly enhancing utility customer engagement in the years ahead.
Douglas Hartman is Executive Director Energy Solutions at TELUS International – a top provider of BPO and contact center solutions to global clients, backed by TELUS, a leading Canadian telecommunications company with $9.8 billion of annual revenue and 12.3 million customer connections. The TELUS-sponsored IDC Energy Insights white paper on the Smart Grid Customer Experience is available for download at: www.telusinternational.com.