This month, The Faces of Vertex features Chirag Shah, our director of consulting and analytics. Chirag describes how Vertex combines data analytics with its long history serving the utilities industry, to help utilities meet and exceed today’s changing customer expectations.
PAM: You’ve been working with data analytics for many years, Chirag. Tell me a bit about your background and your role here at Vertex.
CHIRAG: I have a master’s degree in computer engineering, an MBA from a top tier program with a focus in analytical consulting, and have been involved with technology and analytics for over 17 years. As director of consulting and analytics here at Vertex, my primary role is to understand utilities’ goals and objectives, and then design, create and deliver solutions that help improve their operations or end-customer experience.
PAM: I expect you get a lot of insight into customer expectations. How are these expectations evolving over time?
CHIRAG: Utility customers haven’t traditionally expected much in the way of interaction with their utility. But they are clearly learning from experiences with service providers in other industries, like cable companies, Amazon and Netflix. As a result, customers expect any business to know who they are, what they like and what they need. This sets a very high bar for utilities to meet.
My team and I provide solutions that allow utilities to surprise and delight their customers, to give them more than they’re expecting.
One way we do that is to supply utilities with analytics they can use to personalize and customize the user experience—not just online, but also when contacting the call center. We also help provide customers more information than before. Utilities don’t just send them a bill once a month anymore. To actually engage customers, utilities are collecting more data—through smart meters, for example—and can use it to provide them more detail about usage, billing history and how their usage compares to other similar customers.
PAM: Besides the raw data from meters and call center interactions, what else do you need to truly personalize the customer experience?
CHIRAG: Data, and plenty of it. Utilities can now use both internal and external data sources to personalize the customer experience. It’s called big data because there is so much of it! (Laughs)
The question then becomes what do you do with it. How do you analyze and manipulate the data to actually get meaningful and insights to meet those customer expectations? That's where analytics comes into play.
To make sense of so much data you need a data scientist. But you also need somebody that understands the business. The combination of those two skills is what allows utilities to make better business decisions.
The problem is that even larger utilities can’t afford to have many data scientists on staff. And if you're looking for data scientists with direct experience in utilities, you're not going to find too many.
You could hire a data scientist and wait for them to learn the industry. Or you could work with a company like Vertex, which has over 20 years working directly to support utilities. We've got years of accumulated industry and analytics expertise you won’t find elsewhere.
PAM: So, a utility says, "Yeah, I need analytics, but I’m not sure where to start.” How does Vertex help them build a business case for implementing analytics?
CHIRAG: After realizing the potential value of analytics, a utility needs to build a solid business case. That’s the fastest way to get the executives’ attention and make analytics a key priority for the business.
We make that easier. We come in with some well-defined use cases where analytics can impact the business positively and easily. We recommend starting with one or two use cases that target utility-specific business problems, to get some quick wins and demonstrate to your organization the potential of analytics.
PAM: What is an example of a use case for analytics that Vertex would recommend?
CHIRAG: One example is using speech analytics, which lets utilities truly listen to the voice of the customer.
There's a lot of expansion into multichannel customer care. However, the predominant channel is still a phone call. You can pretty easily analyze data from self-service channels, but for calls there’s currently very little insight into what was actually said on the call. A single call wrap code can’t really represent everything that happened in a conversation. Besides a billing inquiry, for example, the 10 other things the customer discussed get lost. Not to mention, what the agent said.
Speech analytics is a powerful tool that lets utilities mine 100 percent of the conversation. It lets utilities understand their customers’ needs and opinions, which in turn lets them drive improvements to their customer services, products, policies and procedures.
With speech analytics, one utility we work with discovered just how often customers expressed dissatisfaction with service charges for paying their bill with a credit card. The insight quantified the problem and convinced executives to invest in the technical solution needed to eliminate this complaint. And that wasn’t even the reason those customers called in the first place.
By the way, one of our own call centers received a major performance award for excellent customer service. Listening to the voice of the customer and voice of the employee—using speech analytics—factored into this accomplishment in a big way.
PAM: What’s another example of analytics in action?
CHIRAG: I mentioned earlier how smart meters have exploded the data utilities collect over the past 5 to 10 years. Instead of once a month, utilities get data over the radio network every 15 minutes or hour. We can apply analytics to this data to find out when things go wrong.
For example, we built a leak detection solution for a water utility in the southeastern US. We developed algorithms to look at data and identify abnormal patterns that might indicate a leak. This lets the utility alert the customer to address the problem before it comes a huge issue.
In one case, we detected an abnormality in the readings for an elderly water customer. Because the man suffered from hearing loss, he couldn’t hear the water running. The utility rolled a truck and found a major leak behind a wall inside the home. Not only did this save the customer a huge water bill, but it saved his home from major damage.
It's a great case study for how to use big data—and utilities’ investment in AMI or AMR—to benefit the customer. Customers don't expect a utility to proactively reach out to them, unless they haven't paid the bill! In this case, the utility saves their customers money, and helps them conserve water, too.
Finally, I’ll mention we offer VertexOne Predictive Analytics solutions as well, but I know Bob Stephan recently described that in detail.
PAM: If you had to sum it up, what makes Vertex’s analytics and consulting different or even exceptional to our customers?
CHIRAG: I’d have to say it comes down to our understanding of the industry, its operating environment, and the science of data analytics. That combination is what makes us unique and lets us customize a solution to the need of each utility.
Our customers like that we offer our analytics solutions as a service, and bundle them with quarterly consulting services. Our team comes out to show you exactly what we are learning from the analytics, and provides a list of prioritized business recommendations. So you don’t need a data scientist of your own—you have ours on your team.
The Faces of Vertex is a periodic blog post that features employees from different areas of Vertex each month.