Better customer service can help utilities unlock hundreds of millions in value, but it requires grasping a central concept: Some moments matter more than others.
That's the basic idea behind new research from Opower, which looks to find ways utilities can turn a better customer experience into savings and revenue. And the potential is significant, perhaps more than $40 annually per home, the company said.
“How can we drive engagement?” asked Opower Director of Consumer Insights Timur Hicyilmaz. “We're not necessarily looking for new moments to engage, but there are natural moments, life events, when these interactions happen.”
Opower today has released new research that identifies a dozen “moments that matter” – existing interactions between a utility and a customer which can be streamlined, leveraged and turned from a potential pain point into a chance to create value. Among those moments are extreme weather, call center interactions, rate changes, moving into a new home, bill receipt and outages.
“Customer engagement has been a hot topic for five years now,” said Kevin Hamilton, vice president of marketing for Opower. But he said there is an oft-quoted statistic which has been driving that push, and perhaps in the wrong ways. According to Accenture, your average customer spends nine minutes each year talking to their utility.
“A lot of what we've seen is not on optimizing those nine minutes, but on creating additional interaction,” Hamilton said. “Our hypothesis isn't about creating new moments.”
“We can't re-engineer how someone lives their lives but we can identify moments that matter,” Hicyilmaz explained. “And you can engineer that moment.”
Value and potential
Through a combination of utility executive interviews, call center data analysis and a global panel survey of 7,000 customers across seven countries, Opower determined that what customers most want from their utility is customer service.
That may not seem intuitive, given that nine-minute statistic, but it makes more sense when you consider the already-high reliability of the power grid, especially in North America. With the basics being met, customers begin to want more. And when taken in combination with the way other services and retailers — think Netflix, your cell provider or Amazon — have revolutionized the customer experience, the public is coming to expect more sophistication from their utilities.
Opower's research looks at gaps between what customers want and where they see their utilities lacking. Electric reliability, for instance, is an area where incremental investment would yield minor benefits, because the power is already reliable. But consumers say better customer service is high on their list, and Opower sees that as relatively low-hanging fruit.
“Improving the billing and call center experience are not solely matters that have implications for customer satisfaction and customer energy savings. They are also fundamental areas for utilities to rein in operational costs,” the white paper finds.
In North America alone, utilities spend an estimated $5.3 billion annually on customer care, according to Opower. The company said its own customer-care solution recently demonstrated a 19% reduction in high bill call volume. Deployed to every home in North America, that reduction would provide over $900 million in net benefits to utilities annually.
Improvements to e-billing, revenue management, software and program promotion – combined with almost $9 in value from call center improvements – could potentially offer $20.50 per customer each year to the utility.
Combined with the potential to use targeted communications to reduce peak demand (which Opower sees as a $21.50 potential value to the customer), the report finds a total opportunity of approximately $42 per home annually.
Known as a leader in helping utilities manage demand, Opower's team is also becoming known for its research. This is the first white paper the company has put out this year, but last year it published seven pieces of analysis looking at energy efficiency and demand response, including research on behavioral demand response, which links closely with the company's newest findings.
The firm has a six-man research team that includes two psychologists, management consultants and qualitative researchers, said Hicyilmaz.
“We're interested in how consumers behave, what they want, what they have,” said Hicyilmaz. “We pretty much tour the world looking at those areas. We're interested in any mechanism that will advance our goals and our clients' goals.”
Much of Opower's work began as internal development, Hicyilmaz said, but now is published broadly.
High bill anxiety
Opower's reasearch turned up a simple example of customer care potential: the moment when a customer receives an unexpectedly high bill – something 40% of customers reported in the last year, and which caused 72% of them anxiety.
“From a utilities perspective that is also a bad moment,” said Hicyilmaz. “Typically they call, and ask why it's as high as it is.”
Call center contacts are expensive, and the more a utility can do to reduce them the more money saved (and likely, a happier customer). But Opower's research shows customers who receive proactive alerts for high bills — and who are not surprised — are four times more likely to recommend their utility.
“Utility performance during these key moments can substantially change customers’ perception of their utility, their likelihood of calling into a call center, and their interest in enrolling in additional programs,” the paper found.
"The antidote" to anxiety around a high bill likely isn't just a more friendly bill, Opower said.
Instead, the company said utilities must "instead leverage robust analytics and established communication channels to alert a customer well in advance," with 80% of customers in North America saying they would prefer a proactive approach to high bills.
While a high bill is not a good thing, it does allow the utility the chance to "optimize that experience with alerts, to digitally to deliver value," Hamilton said. A moment like that can drive greater participation in demand side management programs, for instance.