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Utility contact centers will face significant transformations as utility business models transform. Re-engineering processes to accommodate captive consumer to prosumer with choices is one profound set of changes. Shifting from a cost center to a strategic revenue center is another change of tectonic proportions. But what about technologies in contact centers – what will change there? My colleague, Bill Maikranz, Consulting Director for the Smart Grid Library and a long-time contact center expert, offered his insights in this guest column.

Phone calls for outages and billing issues make up the vast majority of residential consumer contact in utility contact centers now. That hasn’t changed for over one hundred years. The traditional utility contact center technologies required specialized phone systems (ACDs) with supporting tools such as IVRs for self service, and agent applications that could associate a phone number to a customer record to intelligently route callers to agents. Communication channel options expanded with introduction of websites and webchat, email, and text for customer services. Lately utility contact centers have been adding twitter and other social media channels for responses to consumer queries and sometimes more importantly, their feedback.

There are two major areas of technology changes. First is the rise of the smartphone as the main communications channel. With over 1 billion smartphones in use continued adoption across all demographic, geographic, and economic categories, it holds strategic value for utilities to build strong consumer and prosumers engagement. Smartphones have a ubiquity not seen with computers. Smartphones have certain attributes that will have to be factored into the technologies, processes, and agent skill sets for utility contact centers.

  • Smartphones support non-intrusive communication options.   Text and email doesn’t require interruption and/or reaction, and that opens up a wide range of proactive outreach options.
  • Smartphones provide “paper trails” of information that can be viewed and saved. That has important implications for rapid development of approved messages that can be distributed by a contact center through multiple communication channels
  • Smartphones enable social media activity. Many consumers are attuned to using social media to complain, make inquiries, or seek advice. Technologies that support the development and maintenance of prosumer relationships must include integrated views of the “tapestry” of communications woven from different channels. We see social media becoming much more granular in the prosumer space. It extends beyond a utility’s single Facebook or Twitter account and into the local level such as your neighborhood or street. Nextdoor.com is an example of neighborhood granularity. This granularity could be related to consumers who have customer side of the meter distributed energy resources (DER) assets, share a circuit, and may have social media preferences for notification of scheduled maintenance that changes by time of day, day of week, or time of year.

Of course, utility contact centers still need to handle traditional phone calls and manage information about caller preference and reason for call.

The second significant technology impact is the rise of realtime information and feedback loops. The ongoing adoption of smart meters and use of Green Button data demonstrate the value of real time data and near realtime data about energy consumption.  The ability to deliver timely suggestions for electricity (or gas or water in the future) reductions will have value to prosumers who can then granularly manage their production of reductions in use as well as utility planners.   Some of this realtime information includes presence – the knowledge of a consumer’s location and closest preferred channel of communication. In our prosumer model, presence adds extra value to manage power usage or send alerts regarding remote options. The right applications can include approved rules that govern actions to take in service outages when consumers are not at home.

The feedback loops can take several forms, but the most interesting involve gamification.  Once again, the smartphone is a key technology to exploit the increasing amounts of data into applications that educate and entertain, and in the process reward and reinforce behaviors to improve the persistency of those behaviors over time.  The smartphone offers non-intrusive immediacy by converging multiple channels of communication into one ubiquitous device.

Data begets more data, and feedback loops like gamification can produce very meaningful data to help consumers and prosumers manage consumption of energy and/or water.  The field of prosumer analytics is very new, and it is unique to utilities.  We’ve been focused on it to help utility contact centers prepare for prosumer engagement.

The traditional utility contact center will go away.  If you value your consumers, you don’t want to push them away into IVR jail to identify themselves, pick a multiple choice reason of why they are calling (which they might not know), or force them to interact with agents who lack the specific skills to handle their requests.  You’re begging for consumer intermediation by a competitor like Comcast or AT&T or other non-traditional service providers.  Building highly personalized relationships starts by recognizing that electricity consumers will have choices, and that decision points come down to the quality of services delivered through preferred communication channels.  It will be important to have the right technologies in place to support services delivery that is consistently engaging, informative, and convenient.

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