Utilities have weathered everything 2020 has thrown at them to date. And as my clients emerge from this year, I’m working with them to reimagine their business in three key ways and challenge the assumption that you can’t be industrial and personal at the same time.

#1: Prioritize responsible revenue recovery

Utilities, like customers, are facing common challenges as they emerge from 2020. Over recent months, my utilities clients and I have come together through some executive roundtable events, to share their experiences and the actions they’re taking.

And one of the most prominent topics of discussion has been: how do you move forward with revenue recovery compassionately and responsibly? As moratoriums draw to a close, utilities must start to rebalance the books but also protect vulnerable customers.

So what are they doing to tread this fine line? One key tool: segmenting customers based not only on their current status, but also with their history in mind. Example: let’s think about the customers who always paid on time in the past (maybe for decades) but have lost their job this year. Utilities are working to acknowledge their history by giving them, for instance, a 15% discount on their payback sum and longer to pay it. And customers who were already struggling to pay before COVID-19 might be offered weekly micropayment plans—the idea being to make more frequent, small payments. Meanwhile, a number of utilities have dedicated groups that works directly with agencies to help customers in need.

It’s a balancing act: more complex payment calls from customers means more cost to serve. And utilities everywhere are predicting a surge of interactions post-moratorium. Accenture analysis suggests utilities will be dealing with up to a 400% increase in the volume of customer queries related to payments. (But maybe digital can help…keep reading)

#2: Give customers new ways to interact

As people struggled to pay their bills, it became evident that customers wanted to interact with their utilities a lot less. If they weren’t able to pay their main bill, they didn’t want to call.

Instead, they turned to digital channels for payment options, bill explanations and even new products and services. They switched channels on their own. Now the challenge for utilities (and others) is to sustain the switch. And for that, digital paths (e.g., mobile apps, websites or interactive voice response (IVR) systems) have to provide all the capabilities customers want, as easily as possible.

It’s an overused analogy but a good one: personally, I never even walk through the doors of my bank. I can even deposit a paper check using a picture on an app. Digital is now my default, and utilities have the chance to fully exploit its potential.

This is where utilities can turn to artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics to keep customers with digital. An example: proactive customer outreach. Remember those customers that now have arrears? AI and analytics can help generate proactive contact to those customers by segment. For instance, this may mean contacting customers with a standard payment plan, to help them pay off their arrears balance (without additional consequence or penalty), and help customers stay current on arrears. It’s transparent, supports the customer and reduces inbound calls.

And to those inbound calls again for a moment…

Sidebar: And AI-powered help for the oversized bag (stay with me here…)

Think of the conveyer belt at the airport baggage hall. The bags go on, they go round and round, then the alarm sounds, and off shoots a huge bag to the side. It’s too heavy or it’s an abnormal shape (e.g., golf clubs)….so it gets thrown off the standard route.

Now think of that in terms of calls and utilities. Let’s imagine the chatbot answers the bulk of customer queries on the usual subjects, but once in a while, the “heavy/abnormally shaped bag” call gets re-routed to a human agent. Maybe it’s a complex query, or a vulnerable customer. The human agent can help put that question (“bag”) back on the standard route – at a fraction of the cost for a human agent to answer all calls. We know the benefits touch all parties, with 20% to 40% in cost reduction and up to 25% increased customer retention.1 Read our New Energy Consumer research for more.

And let’s remember: other service providers are doing this all the time and customers expect it. And the AI that sits behind the chatbot actually drives up personalization, rather than impeding it. Throughout COVID, customers have shown they can get behind digital intuitively.

#3: Draft the sustainability plan for your people

And of course, serving customers relies on resilient employees. Right now, I’m counselling my utilities clients to prioritize the sustainability plan for working from home. Who’s going to do it, why and how? And what does this mean for office space and arrangements?

We know the homeworking technology is fit for purpose. But the people equation is more complex. Two-thirds of utilities employees enjoy working from home and productivity may even be higher. But equally, 30% have reported problems.2

It’s time to take a strategic look at employee situations. For instance: maybe certain functions can now work remotely all the time (e.g., specialized queues and non-phone channels). Or maybe homeworking should be on rotation. Or agents who want to be home-based can be, as long as they live a commutable distance from the office.

The foundation for a sustainable remote organization is strong employee relationships, forged through listening to employees, and new approaches to employee engagement and rewards. Utilities should remember that happy, engaged and rewarded employees lead to satisfied and loyal customers.

In summary

Utilities now have the momentum to shift digital up a gear—and benefit their customers and employees, as well as the bottom line.

The new default “front door” of the utility should be digital. But it’s only going to work if it’s easier and more effective than calling a human agent.

Meanwhile, the dichotomy between personalization and industrialization just isn’t there anymore. With AI and analytics, you can be big and individual at the same time (remember the conveyer belt and the oversized bag).

It all adds up to better service, and a resilient workforce ready to help customers get back on their feet. Contact me to find out more about how to move ahead.


1 Accenture analysis.
2 Accenture global COVID-19 research for WEF

Dondi Schneider

Managing Director – Consulting, Global Utilities, Transmission and Distribution

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