The following is a contributed article by Brian Bowen, Director, Market Development at FirstFuel Software.
Today more than ever, great customer service is key to utility success. To deliver this, customer service representatives (CSRs) must have a variety of information instantly available at their fingertips. But this is easier said than done.
To answer a billing question, CSRs reference one system. Downloading energy data requires accessing another. Helping a customer register for an online account, yet another.
A utility customer service executive once described it to me as "a constant struggle against the swivel chair." It's also a constant source of frustration for CSRs — and an impediment to fast, effective customer interactions.
Modern customer relationship management (CRM) systems aim to solve the "swivel chair" problem by consolidating customer data in a single place. Yet, given the complexity — and vintage — of many utility IT systems, true data consolidation and integration within CRM is rarely simple. Well-intentioned integration work can lead to extensive custom coding, which makes the resulting solution difficult to upgrade and maintain over time.
Some systems integrators rely on simpler integrations, such as hyperlinks between systems, that avoid extensive custom code. Unfortunately, this can create a new kind of swivel chair problem, where reps are constantly hunting for the pop-up window with the right information.
Worse still, when the experience isn't optimized, the integration may see low user adoption, which erodes the business case that drove the integration in the first place.
The good news is modern CRM vendors realize they need to remove some of the hassles of systems integration for large enterprise users like utilities. They are embracing an "App Store approach" that allows utilities to consolidate customer data and integrate third-party solutions on a single platform. This approach presents several benefits for utilities looking to modernize customer service systems with minimal customization.
An app store approach 'just works'
The first and most important benefit of CRM app integration is vendor pre-approval.
Before launching an app on a CRM marketplace, every app vendor must complete extensive vetting, security checks and product approvals by some of the largest technology firms in the world. The result is a set of solutions that utilities can trust — in other words, the apps "just work".
Then there's the benefit of choice.
With a marketplace model, utilities can pick and choose amongst vendors and select the right fit for the right use. They may even be able to review comments and ratings from other app users to get a better sense of the product's performance and utility. This allows for rapid extensibility and selection of vendors for a CRM solution, enabling the utility IT and business teams to quickly identify gaps in their solution and potential vendors to fill them.
One data model, many solutions
When moving to a modern CRM system, many utilities are focused on creating a "single source of truth" for customer data. However, when integrating multiple solutions, that single source of truth can be challenged by duplicate fields and overlapping functionality.
Fortunately, an app-based integration is designed to integrate with the CRM system's default data model, and app integration can offer the right amount of customization without impacting core data structure.
For example, newer CRM integrations include only a handful of custom "objects" that store unique system-generated information, such as firmographic and facility information and energy product and service recommendations. The heavy lifting on integration is relational — the process of mapping these objects and fields to the utility's pre-defined data model.
Some vendors provide a data model as part of their core solution, which gives utilities an extremely robust starting point for how to structure data in their transition to a modern CRM. In short, an app-based integration model strikes the right balance in data structure and organization, allowing for some customization without relying on it as the glue that holds everything together.
A single pane of glass
In any utility call center, call handling time is a key metric, and generally, the faster a rep can resolve a call, the better. When time is of the essence, it's important to have the right information available for the task at hand, preferably in a single screen, the proverbial "single pane of glass."
App-based integration can enable utilities to build a comprehensive "Customer 360" screen that includes insights from multiple apps — such as residence or business information from third-party vendors, KPIs like monthly energy use or spend from billing systems, and even predictive insights like flags for a potentially high bill from analytics providers.
The goal is to give reps the right amount of data at the right time, put data in context, and where relevant, provide visualizations that can help tell a story. At its best, app-based integration provides customer data and insights in a single view — or at worst, just a tab click away.
Consistency is key
Another benefit of app-based integration is consistency.
Many application providers can link their solutions to multiple customer interfaces, ensuring that the customer has a consistent experience with their utility. Leading utilities are providing web-based tools via the MyAccount experience that surface the same insights for call center reps.
In effect, CSRs can see exactly what the customer sees online (via co-browsing functionality) without having to leave the CRM interface.
That same MyAccount or CRM information can plug into email and print marketing tools to create "smarter" bills and email marketing campaigns, and it can be sliced and diced by AI tools. When visualizations and insights are consistent across channels thanks to tight integration, customers know they can rely on utilities as trusted advisors with a "single source of truth" about their customer relationship.
From "plug and play" back to reality
Despite all the benefits of "app store" integration, building a modern CRM system will never be 100% "plug-and-play."
CRM programs are large, long-term projects that require commitment from business and IT leads across the utility organization. Utility teams have to set realistic expectations, and may still rely on the expertise of system integrators to ensure all the pieces fit together.
The good news is — if a utility can clearly define its requirements — chances are that there is a solution on a CRM marketplace that can meet those needs. And, in all likelihood, another utility has already installed that application, used it, and developed best practices to share with its peer energy providers.
Perhaps best of all, app marketplaces create an ecosystem where different industries, like utilities, can work together to find a package of solutions that fit their needs as they look to build "Utility CRM 2.0" — and deliver on the promise of superior customer service.