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4 Actions utilities can take to exceed customer expectations in the “New Normal”

Utilities have maintained operations and rolled out several measures to ensure no interruption in services for millions affected by COVID-19. While they should be justifiably proud of keeping the lights on for their customers, utilities must consider future stages of safety measures and prepare to take an active role as populations adapt across the globe. Utilities can help customers engage with a new reality that harbors uncertainty and disruption through safe and reliable customer experiences that are intuitive, assistive and outcome oriented.

As a result, utilities need to shift from a more reactive “keeping the lights on” way of doing things to a more forward-looking, lifestyle-enabling engagement with customers. By implementing the following four actions, utilities can exceed expectations by transforming their customer experience in a post-COVID-19 world.

1. Default to digital customer engagement

Gone are the days of relying on website updates – utilities must reimagine the customer journey and experience in creative, accessible, digital-first ways. This has never been more imperative than now as a large segment of the population faces uncertainty and financial disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Utilities must reimagine the customer journey and experience in creative, accessible, digital-first ways.”

By using the capabilities of diverse digital channels to design the user experience, relevant and informative content can reach customers more quickly. Using models such as Publicis Sapient’s LEAD framework allows utilities to focus on simple, uncluttered experiences that benefit customers.

Mobile apps, conversational systems like chatbots and social media offer light and proactive two-way communication with customers. Targeted alerts and campaigns through apps can preempt customer queries. Identifying customer needs and vulnerabilities will help determine where and how journeys can be modified and updated, as well as how content should be communicated and displayed across various channels. Internal and external data sources can be leveraged to display contextual and relevant messages. This elevates customer experience from the ordinary to the ethical, helpful and convenient.

Many utilities, especially retailers, still depend on proactive interest from customers or door-to-door salespeople to sell new products. Others continue to have manual processes as part of their customer engagement. Utilities need to shift towards adopting agile marketing processes that leverage CRM and related technologies to execute targeted marketing campaigns that enhance customer value and drive digital customer acquisition. Whether it’s an energy efficiency marketplace, a website to view and shop new products and services or different rate options, utilities will need to take a strategic approach to drive high quality traffic to their website and ensure higher conversion rates. This means building product awareness, integrating third-party data for targeted campaigns, planning re-targeting programs, and developing integrated sales and marketing campaigns. Digital Customer is no longer limited to the front-end interface; rather, it should address needs within the hour and enable lifestyle outcomes for customers.

2. Expand Contactless Operations

The need for contactless customer engagement has emerged as one of the primary behavioral changes for customers and utility workers as a result of COVID-19. In the past, utilities have looked at technologies such as autonomous substation robots, drones, AR/VR and smart sensors to enable remote operations, but some of these technologies can also be used for customer service. For example, Eversource Energy has converted to a digital-only process for notifying homeowners when the utility seeks to do tree-trimming work on a homeowner’s property. Another utility that is laying underground power lines is planning to leverage AR technology to engage with customers who may be affected by work on their property. AR technology can help the customer understand the changes made to their property, as the utilities dig up the ground to lay the powerlines. Similarly, virtual energ audits are being explored as a means to provide remote energy efficiency services.

Utilities are also piling up a backlog of customer service requests. One midsize utility on the US East Coast we spoke with had a backlog of more than 2,000 customer-related work orders within a month of official lockdown. Prioritizing work orders properly while managing supply chains is critical to equip schedulers, supervisors and field crew members with the right tools and technologies to maximize productivity. Equally important, utilities must keep customers updated on the status of requests to manage expectations within constraints. If new suppliers are brought in to support the impending workload, utilities can benefit from apps that enable new crews to hit the ground running through historical information, actionable insights and field collaboration. This is especially important for mutual aid scenarios, as physical distancing puts constraints on resource planning. Utilities that want to be prepared should look to introduce digital technology that gives new field crew members access to such things as location information, directions, task details, timecards and expenses.

3. Capture value with rapid deployment

There is no doubt the new normal will be different for all of us. As transition to recovery mode continues, utilities must work in ways that are also value driven and iterative. This requires a mind shift from cutting costs, to thinking of ways in which value can be extracted more quickly to enhance experience, streamline operations and expand sources of revenue. While many utilities have adopted agile methods, now is the opportunity to make agile an enterprise-wide competency, scaling it across other departments beyond IT. Automation and collaboration are good starting points for utilities here as it helps extend customer experience outside the traditional areas of call centers and marketing into areas where even field workers are delivering the brand experience to customers.

British Gas’s award-winning customer mobile app is an example of how agile models can unite business and IT to deliver a minimum lovable product (MLP) of a new customer app in less than three months and achieve business outcomes. The same approach can be used to build digital capabilities across the enterprise and in field operations and customer service to ensure outcome-driven results for utilities.


4. Keep the pedal pressed on energy conservation

As unemployment hits record highs, helping the community has never been more important. Utilities can be more strategic in their use of customer demographics and load profiles to better plan energy efficiency programs that decrease consumption and payment defaults, reduce cost of collections and minimize spending on new capital projects. With regulators increasingly looking to design Performance Based Regulation (PBR) programs that incentivize utilities on energy efficiency, utilities may have little to lose even in a reduced consumption environment. This also presents an opportunity for utilities to demonstrate how commercial vision can successfully align with social benefits, whether it is deploying demand response programs, driving traffic to energy marketplaces or encouraging customers to buy energy efficient equipment.

Oshawa Power’s Peak Power app is a great demonstration of the societal benefits around affordability and energy conservation that such programs can bring. With customers saving up to 7% on their energy consumption, the app proved successful in the way Oshawa Power and Ontario Energy Board used data to guide customers so they could choose different tariff options or change usage behavior and reduce energy consumption.

Customer experience can be a pivotal source of competitive advantage for utilities that want to put their customer first and become a true partner. This can be achieved when the customer perceives the value delivered by the utility to be relevant, transparent and easily accessible in times of need such as the current COVID-19 crisis. An intuitive, assistive and outcome-oriented approach helps utilities in this quest.

“Customer experience can be a pivotal source of competitive advantage for utilities that want to put their customer first and become a true partner.”

Each utility is different and at a different place in its maturity level when it comes to delivering customer experience. Now is the time for utilities to identify gaps and pinpoint opportunities for delivering true value to customers through a combination of design, technology and new ways of working. Armed with these tactics, utilities will be able to deliver new relevant experiences that create meaningful brand resonance and help build customer loyalty. As the industry continues to evolve and competition increases in areas of new products and services, utilities who excel at this will be more successful in achieving business outcomes.

Supratik Chaudhuri
Supratik Chaudhuri
Director, Utilities, North America