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Written by: Michelle Gillum

Another version of this article appears in CS Week Newsline, Winter 2019 Edition.

Numbering more than 73 million, millennials have surpassed the baby boomers to become both the largest and most statistically significant demographic group in North America. Those born during the final two decades of the 20th Century have now fully entered adulthood (or, as millennials themselves might say, are now “adulting” full-time) and are purchasing homes and starting families of their own.

Yet, despite their embrace of certain traditional aspects of American culture, this generation is still chiefly characterized by the fact that they came of age during an incredible information era. Millennials grew up with computers and instantaneous communications in their pockets. They are completely at ease navigating the Internet of Things, that hyperconnected environment that allows them to conduct conversations and transactions anytime and anywhere they like using their device of choice. With the power to manage most every other aspect of their lives online, why shouldn’t they expect the same from their utility providers?

In many ways, this power has led to a redefinition of consumers’ notions of convenience. So much so that not only millennials, but their parents and grandparents have followed suit, with many of them closing their checkbooks and choosing to pay their utility bills electronically. Paying one’s bill online, however, only scratches the surface of these new customer expectations. As we approach the start of yet another decade, this fundamental shift in expectations requires us to take a new perspective on the customer experience—one where customer self-service takes a more prominent place in a utility’s customer information systems.

Taking Careful Aim: How to Notch Wins Even When the Goalposts are on the Move

When information systems evolve, consumer expectations evolve alongside them. Consequently, utility customers, like any other customer today, now expect to access billing statements and account information online. They are also willing to forego human interaction and address their customer service needs by making use of both interactive telephone response systems and virtual assistants.

In other words, nearly all utility service capabilities are now self-service capabilities—or at least they should be. Beyond environmentally friendly paperless options for paying their monthly bills, customers want to be able to monitor their usage and view their account status in real-time. They also expect payments to post immediately and send them an email receipt. They want to be empowered to add to or change their services whenever they like. And they want to do all this from desktop computers, smartphones, tablets, and—most recently—voice-controlled home assistants.

Meeting such expectations—or exceeding them—is an activity for which utility providers must budget. However, implementing a modern customer self-service (CSS) platform will do more than provide your customers with the level of service they demand. It will also help your business realize cost-savings, diversify its revenue streams, and optimize its day-to-day operations.

To Uncover Hidden Costs, It Pays to Rethink ROI

Any CSS platform worth adopting must provide the self-service functionality today's utility customers demand. But if the user interface (UI) introduces friction to that functionality, adoption of the platform will suffer, meaning even the most beneficial features may be underutilized. The smart investment is in a CSS platform that offers a visually appealing, orderly, and enjoyable user experience (UX).

Choosing such a CSS also requires that you understand your customer journey. What matters most to your customers? What are their goals? Their pain points? What operations can you most effectively automate—that is, allow users to initiate and complete without engaging with a human representative—without sacrificing important aspects of the customer experience?

A CSS that allows customers to pay their bills, enroll in loyalty programs, update their address, and access their historical billing information will help you reduce labor costs at call centers, walk-in facilities, and other customer touchpoints. Assuming an average cost per call of $6, even a modest 50,000 self-service operations per year will yield $300,000 in savings.

Moreover, utilities can achieve additional savings as ease-of-use encourages customers to embrace paperless billing, which eliminates printing, postage, and other expenditures associated with legacy systems.

Connections That Add Up to Engagement Equal New Revenue

The digital revolution has changed the way consumers learn about new products and special offers. A modern CSS platform gives utilities the ability to integrate cross-sell and up-sell opportunities into the digital customer experience. This, in turn, has the potential to transform how utilities calculate the true costs of customer acquisition and retention.

Mass mailings, billing statement enclosures, and email blasts aren’t efficient means of growing sales. That’s because these tactics broadcast identical marketing messages to an audience that, in fact, has diverse needs and interests—and they expect that whatever offers they receive from you will be personalized. Modern customer information systems collect data that make it possible to target marketing campaigns to consumers with the most relevant and useful offers. Doing so leads to higher conversion rates and a greater ROI on your marketing investments.

If You Aren’t Tuning into Your Customers’ Expectations, Your Competitors Are

Customers may want their utility providers to keep them informed of new products, special offers, and money-saving bundled services. But they also expect and rely on alerts from their provider when there are abnormalities in their usage that may indicate a natural gas leak, electrical equipment failure, broken water pipe, or some other issue that must be addressed quickly.

Utility customers today want—even need—to access their accounts 24/7, 365 days a year, and via their preferred devices. Newer CSS systems allow interpretation of customer and usage data to send proactive communications to those devices, helping build trust between providers and consumers.

Further, in deregulated markets, this elevated level of personalized customer experience can even serve as a differentiator, giving a provider a competitive edge that helps them expand their existing customer base. In regulated markets, the cost efficiencies associated with the implementation of a modern CSS will satisfy regulators that billed costs are both prudent and reasonable.

Your Organization’s New Year’s Resolutions: Leaner Operations and Healthier Attitudes Towards Automation

Advanced technology has enabled the automation of repetitive, predictable tasks in almost every industry. This trend is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades. Forrester projects that robotic process automation (RPA) vendors will earn almost $8 billion in revenue in 2020, with the global market for their services set to exceed $12 billion by 2023. Innovative utility providers have led the way here, by adopting robust CSS platforms that facilitate the streamlining of customer service operations.

Automating commonplace, often tedious, clerical tasks allows utility providers to tap more deeply into their employees’ knowledge, skills, and creative problem-solving capabilities. Better utilization of human resources leads to higher employee satisfaction and, in turn, contributes to continuous improvement as well as growth across the organization.

One division that can benefit immediately from a reallocation of human resources is customer service. Once routine requests can be entrusted to chatbots or self-service applications, customer service representatives can dedicate their energies and talents to those issues that merit escalation.

Meanwhile, other team members could be assigned the responsibility of performing predictive analyses based on previous customer service interactions and outcomes. Such efforts only enhance the differentiating qualities of the customer service experience your brand provides.

Making 2020 the Year You Capitalize on the Transformative Power of Customer Self-Service Technology

Two decades into the 21st century, we find that it isn’t the heightened expectations of just millennial customers that require a fresh perspective on a utility’s customer self-service capabilities. It is the changed expectations of all utility customers. Whether they are millennials, baby boomers, digital natives, or relatively new adopters of smart technology, today’s customer base has responded to digital disruption by forming high expectations—transparency, socially responsible business practices, instantaneous universal access, and near-endless customization.

Now is an opportune time to take a fresh look at the customer experiences your utility offers its customers—but not solely from your customers’ standpoint. It’s also time to consider how adding more comprehensive CSS capabilities can benefit your own organization in 2020 and beyond. Measurable cost-savings, combined with the creation of new revenue sources made possible by upgrading your information systems, will only strengthen your utility’s position in a time of rapidly advancing technology and energy market volatility.