SAP for Utilities event 2013 was all about utility customer communications

Huntington Beach

GreenMonk attended the North American SAP for Utilities event in Huntington Beach California last week. The theme of this year’s event was Designing the Modern Utility. This was our fifth time attending the event, and for the first time we saw a significant focus on the voice/opinion of the customer (although in fairness, we didn’t attend the event in 2012).

Utility companies, as we have said many times in the past, have a very poor record with customer communications. Typically, the only times you hear from a utility company is when they are sending a bill, a disconnection warning, or notice of a rate increase. None of these are very positive interactions. It is no surprise then that in an age of increasing customer importance, trust in utility companies is the lowest level it has been in years.

It is hardly surprising though. Many utilities are coming from a situation where they are, or until recently have been, regional monopolies. Their customers had no choice of supplier, and so the utilities didn’t feel a need to listen to their customers views. Furthermore, utilities are, by their nature, extremely conservative organisations. They need to be, given they are handling such necessities as water, gas and electricity. So any change in their attitude to customer communications will happen slowly.

Change, it would appear, is very much underway now in the utilities industry. Jane Arnold from City of San Diego Public Utilities, San Diego’s water utility, gave a talk entitled Putting the “E” in Customer Engagement. Kevin Jackson from Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OGE) discussed in his talk how OGE have rolled out 800,000 smart meters and are using these to provide their customers with access to realtime energy consumption information. They hope that by providing customers with this information, and by rolling out time of use billing to defer the need to build a new power plant in 2020.

And Tracy Kirk from New Jersey’s Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSEG) talked about how PSEG started to use Twitter to begin a two way conversation with its customers. Then it was hit with Hurricane Sandy, and Tracy outlined how Twitter helped PSEG to manage its customers expectations and reduce frustrations associated with the hurricane’s damage to its infrastructure.

There was even a keynote from Julie Albright, a research scientist at the University of Southern California, on the topic of the Social Utility, strongly echoing the closing keynote GreenMonk gave at the same event in San Antonio in 2011 on the topic of Potent Social Media strategies for Utilities.

Even the conversations in the corridors referred to the need for increased customer communications, far more than at any previous SAP for Utilities event.

Utilities are starting to realise the necessity of improved customer communications, and this can only be a good thing.

This post was originally published on GreenMonk

SAP for Utilities event 2013 was all about utility customer communications

Next generation of communication

If we look at demographic of people who are customers of a utility company we see it covers everyone from generation Y up to centenarian’s, and I am only speaking about people who are account holders and paying the bills, not the actual users. Due to this broad demographic spectrum of their customers, utility companies facing a complex challenge; how can they communicate with these customers ensuring that each individual is targeted the most effective way while at the same time being cost efficient. In a time where we as consumers are overloaded with information from an ever increasing number of sources and thru multiple channels only information that stands out, is provided to us thru our preferred media and specifically aimed at our current needs will find its target. Other information is at risk to be lost in the general noise.

Let’s relate this to a simple but important utility process: the handling of an overdue bill. If the message that a bill is overdue is not received and acted on by the intended receiver it could lead to costly collections and even disconnections. Therefore it is in the interest of both the utility company and the utility user that the message is received and acted on. However expectations on the customer side vary widely on what the best way would be to receive such information.

Generation Y maybe expecting an alert on their mobile apps or thru social medial that they have missed a payment and that their utility bill is now due, a middle age family man would be looking for an email reminder from their utility company, a 65 year old pensioner maybe sees a call from a friendly agent as the best way to remind him, while a 80 year old grand-mother would be best served with a nice letter from the utility company written with a LARGE FONT. As for the grand-mother, maybe an additional alert to her 20 year old nephew would be an alternative?

In my opinion utility companies need to do two things to provide additional service to ensure their customers will stay loyal. First they need to put in place effective communication with their customers around standard processes. This should not be a problem with today’s technology, however it would be good to hear ideas on how utility companies can improve this basic level of communication with their customers using technologies such as call centers, social media and mobile applications. The second thing is harder, they need to figure out how to use communication to bind customers closer their company and creating a stickiness that ensures their utility users turn in to loyal customers for life. An example could be using real-time smart meter information to detect the usage at the 80 year old grand-mother’s house is abnormal high at midnight and use that information to have a call center agent to give her a call to check up on her to see if she is okay, maybe she left the tv on or the fridge door open. How do you see utility companies using communications to provide a world class service to their customers in the future?

Next generation of communication

Using the contact centre to avoid bad profits

The majority of utility companies are still in the habit of relentlessly pursuing bad profits and in such doing themselves more harm than good. Let me start with explaining what we mean with bad profits? Simply put it, bad profits arise when utility companies puts the bottom-line before its customers.
A typical example of a utility process that results in bad profits is the chasing of open bills by sending customers multiple over-due notices increasingly focussing on penalty charges and disconnection warnings. Of course a certain percentage of customers will pay the outstanding bill after receiving these threatening letters, however what are the hidden cost of such actions? If a customer feels they are not treated fairly or compassionately they will remember this, and in the future when the opportunity arises they will jump ship and you could be losing a good customer for ever.

If a customer does not pay their utility bill would it not be better to try to find out the reason why and if the circumstances warrant to mediate an outcome that benefits both parties instead of resorting to a one directional, generic, and cascading threatening communication. Chasing bad profits is short sighted and in most cases totally unnecessary in today’s time and age. Customers will eventually turn their back on companies who have a culture of aggressively chasing outstanding debts. In a time where customers have a choice and where churn rates are deteriorating to the point where utility retailers may lose half of its new customers in less than three years, chasing bad profits might not be a good business practice.

So how can technology help eliminate bad profits or even better turn bad profits into good profits. With today’s technologies such as “big data” and ‘analytics” the information is available to utility companies to differentiate between “notorious” bad payers and customers who struggle to keep up with their utility payments due to circumstance outside their control. I am sure most of us have in one point in time experienced reduced cash flow due to reasons mostly outside our control, it could be that you are between jobs and the next pay check does not arrive for another month, or it is the start of the school year and your kids school fees are due, maybe your car broke down and costly repairs are needed, or it could be an unexpected high dentist bill. Once a utility company recognizes that even a customer is willing they sometimes are not able to pay their bills on time, the utility company can use their contact centre to reach out to these customers and add the human touch to the whole transaction of chasing overdue bills.

In a time where more and more of our interactions seems to be through social media and electronic gadgets, speaking to a person who understands someone’s situation, shows compassion and can guide a customer with an overdue bill towards a long term payment plan, implement a delayed payment programs or direct debit can do wonders. So think before you send out the 3rd or 4th “overdue bill notice” –let alone disconnection warnings, and see if a more “human” touch would not result in better results.

How do you see utility companies using communication to provide a more human touch to interactions?

Using the contact centre to avoid bad profits

AGL Energy and building Business Intelligence maturity through self service

At the SAP for Utilities event in Singapore I had a brief chat with Mr Cameron Vagg of AGL Energy about the talk he gave there.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Tom Raftery: Hey everyone, welcome to GreenMonk TV! We are at the SAP for Utilities Event in Singapore, and with me I have Cameron Vagg, Cameron is with AGL Energy. Cameron, AGL Energy, who are they?

Cameron Vagg: We’re a large Australian Energy Company; we’re a retailer and a generator of electricity and gas, but not a distributor.

Tom Raftery: Okay! Now you’ve given us an interesting talk at the event, can you talk and just give a synopsis of that?

Cameron Vagg: Sure. I gave a talk about Building BI Maturity Through Self-Service

Tom Raftery: BI?

Cameron Vagg: Self-Service BI.

Tom Raftery: Sorry, BI is?

Cameron Vagg: Sorry, Business Intelligence Maturity for Self Service and Business Objects. Essentially, we’re trying to nail down that, we think that organizations can improve their business intelligence by conducting a simple self assessment that looks at their operating model the way that they are servicing the needs of their organization and their customers through business intelligence.

What their business intelligence culture is like, and what their business intelligence capabilities are like. And in conducting that self-assessment where you’ve made some changes and I go through those and talk about what we did and how we did, and the benefits that we are seeing in terms of terms of improved capacity, speed and breadth of business intelligence.

Tom Raftery: Okay! Can you just talk me through some of the potential use cases for that?

Cameron Vagg: Yes, particular interesting sort of area that we have in Australia right now is that we’re starting to see Smart Meter rollouts, so we have about 350,000 Smart Meter customers, with 48 meter reads a day. So that presents with a data challenge and a data opportunity for us to get inside into that data.

Tom Raftery: Okay, perfect! Cameron, that’s been great! Thanks again for talking to us.

Cameron Vagg: Great! Thanks Tom, bye!

AGL Energy and building Business Intelligence maturity through self service