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Customer Self-Service: The Evolution Utilities Can’t Afford to Ignore

From nascent Internet capabilities in the 90’s to the robust abilities of today’s computers and networks, technology developments have paved the way for business innovation in every conceivable industry.

Over the years, technology has allowed organizations—utilities included—to advance the customer experience,particularly where self-service is concerned. In this blog post, we’ll walk through the evolution of customer engagement and self-service capabilities in the industry, including how I’ve witnessed this growth firsthand.

1990s: The Dawn of the World Wide Web and Early Internet Functionalities

During the mid-to-late nineties, I worked for Sudbury Hydro, a legacy utility out of Canada. The World Wide Web had only been around for about five years, and few were aware of the true potential it would have for revolutionizing business functions. By 1996, customers were still accessing the Internet primarily through slow and clunky dial-up phone connections. These connections provided little to support even basic self-service capabilities, but it still proved to be a viable starting point. Bills were still sent and paid the old-fashioned way, on paper, and few utilities had an online presence beyond a basic corporate website.

At Sudbury Hydro, we recognized the need to build our own self-service website in response to evolving technological capabilities and customer tastes. Our proprietary platform, AccountOnline, provided basic account information and online access to current and historical bills. This didn’t mean the death of paper billing—such a practice never would have passed commission approval. But by offering e-bill alongside paper, we started shifting our focus to improving customer service online. 

AccountOnline’s early contributions to customer self-service didn’t go unnoticed, culminating in considerable recognition and, in 1999, the Municipal Electric Association’s Award for Customer Service.

Early 2000s: Moving Towards e-Billing and Early Customer Portals

After the success of AccountOnline, I was hired by Enlogix, an early iteration of what is known today as our company, VertexOne. In my role, I was responsible for architecting online payment, e-billing and self-service capabilities as part of our e-Solutions group. While we made considerable strides, many of our clients, as well as their customers, remained wary of the Internet and its implications for online security.

Despite this wariness, we went live in 2001 with the first basic e-billing portal for our client, ENMAX Energy, with the electronic payment and delivery component provided by ePost, an offshoot of Canada Post.

2004-2007: Expanding Our Footprint in Customer Portals  

The mid-2000s were where we really began to feel the drive and desire from utilities and their customers to move toward web capabilities and paperless billing. We worked with two major utilities at that time to set up customer self-service portals with a focus on e-billing enrollment and online transfer. 

To fully realize the scope of the work we undertook, it’s important to remember that the early road to reliance on e-billing has not been a smooth one. Early conversations around paperless was unheard of, and it was unusual to attain paperless adoption rates higher than 15 percent. However, over the past decade we've helped clients reach adoption rates of 50 percent or more through VertexOne-powered tools. 

In early 2004 we worked with our client Pacific Northern Gas to deliver our next customer portal, a basic offering that provided customers with up to 18 months e-bill history with information on their accounts. This offering represents the first version of our online customer service (OCS) product, and today—15 years later—it is still running. 

We won a contract with SaskPower, the principal electric utility in Saskatchewan, Canada, to build their MyPowerAccount customer self-service portal in late 2006. We completed the project and successfully went live with MyPowerAccount’s customer-facing portal in early 2007 with capabilities that marked a significant milestone in self-service. This portal offered a host of useful ways for customers to engage with their utility, including account summary, e-bill enrollment and comparison, account and consumption history, billing and payment plan enrollment, and a secure message center. 

Our self-service evolution continued in 2008 with Union Gas, a major Canadian natural gas provider. In that engagement, we constructed the utility’s MyAccount portal that took self-service capabilities a few steps further, adding online requests for move-in, move-out and transfer, as well as online scheduling of service orders. This continued reliance on online capabilities represented a stark contrast with the trepidation and uncertainty that had marked the beginning of the self-service journey, a little over a decade earlier. 

2014: Delivering Our First Mobile Web Experience

When new technology hits the market, sometimes mobile adoption can take a few years to catch up. We encountered this lag when developing our first mobile web experience for Union Gas. We created the solution in 2014 after noticing an uptick in mobile interest from clients in the preceding year. In the nearly six years since this web experience went live, we’ve seen web technology evolve to enable utilities like Union Gas to employ responsive frameworks that automatically cater to a variety of devices and form factors including desktop, tablet and mobile phones.

During the past decade, more advanced self-service capabilities have been added to the portals we host and manage for our clients including online order scheduling, property management, enrollment and participation in open bill partnerships with vendors, and integration with our multichannel communications and document management solutions—with a lot more to come. Today, VertexOne hosts customer-facing portals for more than 15 clients.

2014-Present: Looking Ahead 

Walking through this brief history shows us that while self-service capabilities have come a long way, there is still room for considerable improvements as technology itself continues to evolve.

Stay tuned to our blog over the next few weeks as we provide additional insight into how you can help write the future of your utility’s customer self-service experience.