A loss of power is looming over the utility industry and the problem will be far larger than anyone expected. Remember the days when your utility company sent you a barely-comprehensible bill and you just sighed and paid it? Well, thanks to SmartGrid technology those days may soon be nothing more than a distant memory. SmartGrids promise more reliable service, delivered on a more secure grid that has the ability to self-report, self-correct and remotely initiate, terminate and halt service. One utility provider that we work with installed a fiber optic communication network in their coverage area and offering telephone, television and internet services to their customers. While this approach allowed the organization to fund their SmartGrid, it added even greater complexity to their service interactions customers.
Along with the promise to cut energy bills through demand-side management and lure forward-thinking companies to bring their business into coverage areas, SmartGrids bring with them a considerable service burden that will drive the ill-prepared into a service blackout. The utility provider referenced earlier in this post experienced more than a doubling in average talk time, an increase of nearly 50% in call volume and a 300% increase in call abandon rate. This was despite a doubling in the number call center agents and support staff. The result was entirely predictable – an unfathomed increase in call volume, intolerable wait times, spiking abandon rates and a significant degradation to the service experience. How long do such service blackouts last? That depends entirely on the degree of preparedness of the organization.
Research conducted by Customer Relationship Metrics within the utility space has shown that customers initiate contact for 3 primary reasons – to pay their bill, to initiate, terminate or transfer service and to request payment extensions. These rather simple transactions hardly prepare contact center agents for the complex, technical, consultative nature of impending SmartGrid calls. In this new SmartGrid environment, customers must have a knowledgeable workforce they can access to help them interpret the data from their Smart Meter, help them identify “vampire” appliances, explain the differences between traditional and digital phone services, troubleshoot Home Area Network (HAN) issues, etc. Who is going to be able to support all of those customer needs? Training and increased front-line staffing must be budgeted for in any SmartGrid implementation.
SmartGrids promise numerous benefits to both utility providers and customers, but along the way exponentially increase the degree of expertise and time required to support customers. What about the utility discussed earlier? Although the early stages were quite painful from a servicing perspective, the initiative was deemed to be wildly successful from a financial perspective. A few key lessons were learned from this service blackout:
1. Budget for agent training– As the figure above indicates, customer service agents working for utilities handle rather simple, transactional-type of call. The introduction of SmartGrid technology and new service offerings will require them to transform into highly knowledgeable consultants who can partner with customers, uncover needs and customize service offerings. This will require a significant training investment.
2. Be aware that some of your agents may “not make the cut” – Even with training, some of your existing call center agents may simply not have the desire or the innate skills necessary to complete the transition into the role of a consultant.
3. You will need a (new) technical support department / team– plug-and-play appliances, Smart Meters and HANs can be very complex, especially when one considers all of the firewall, router, PC and MAC components that have to be configured just right in order for the entire system to “play nice.” Such technical expertise may not be available outside of the information technology group of a utility company, but it will be required in order to effectively support customers.
4. Budget for increased staffing in your customer service department – The desire to decrease electric bills will drive many customers to manage and micro-manage their electricity consumption. Not only will you experience more calls than ever before, but those calls will be more complex and therefore longer than your traditional utility calls. Plan and forecast accordingly.
5. Implement in stages– One of the components that made our business partner’s SmartGrid initiative an ultimate success (despite some challenges along the way) was a phased implementation approach. This business partner prioritized the tools that would allow them to recover the cost of their fiber-optic investment via a new revenue stream, then added features that would result in operational cost savings and allow customers to self-manage their electricity consumption.
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