Can Technology Deliver Real Customer-Centricity in the Utilities Sector?

Customer expectations are changing. For the first time ever, writes Tanuj Deora, VP of regulatory affairs and market development at Simple Energy, a significant number of consumers want more than just safe, cheap and reliable power from their utilities provider. 

The change has been brought about by technology, and it’s by using technology that utilities can meet these new expectations. Through smart devices, online platforms, big data and AI, utilities can become customer-centric businesses that will thrive in the next decade and beyond.  

Analyzing Data in a Meaningful Way

Utilities can only become more customer-centric when they understand exactly what their customers want. 

In this regard, data can be incredibly powerful, note Bain partners Corrie Carrigan, Chris Jarrett, Pratap Mukharji and Michael Short. They offer a simple example of what data can reveal: “For example, one utility found that up to two momentary outages over a three-month period are acceptable to their electricity customers; after the second momentary outage, however, customer satisfaction begins to decline.”

For many companies, the problem won’t be collecting data, the team at Greenbird says. Smart meters will more than take care of that. The problem is using all of that data to its full potential. Digital transformation is the first step in this process. That technology then will need to be able to gather data, analyze it and deliver intelligence that guide next steps.

The team at ClickSoftware writes that while smart devices will flood utilities with data, their potential will only be realized when companies have the ability to analyze and understand that data. AI is the solution to this problem. “The sheer volume and variety of data make it impossible—and inadvisable—for humans to make sense of it all without smart artificial intelligence based solutions,” they write.

When machine learning is applied to both historical and real-time data, utilities can make better decisions across the entire business. These can be decisions that dramatically improve the customer experience. Better data can mean better predictive maintenance, meaning fewer outages. It can also mean better scheduling, meaning cheaper prices. 

And savvy customers will want access to their personal data. These reports will go far beyond the traditional usage statements, says Hedgehog Lab’s Billy Wood. In fact, they won’t even be accessed in the same way. Forget websites or apps. Wood sees voice assistants like Alexa and Siri as one of the most likely ways that customers will access their usage and billing information in the future.  

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Leveraging Smart Devices for Smarter Service

The potential of consumer-facing smart devices cannot be understated. The inclusion of these devices in homes has already become normal, and so many consumers will start to expect their service providers to incorporate Alexa and Google Home into their offering. 

The team at WNS points out that this kind of integration is already underway. “Many utilities are partnering with technology companies to provide customers smart devices that allow them to manage energy use,” they write. “Google Nest has partnered with 50+ energy providers in the U.S. and Canada to offer smart thermostats, the Nest Hub (a device that allows customers to control smart home appliances), and smart speakers to control temperature.”

This is just the beginning. The WNS team believes utility customers in the near future will expect a definitive smart home platform that allows them to control their utility usage, and to access real-time and historical data. “While a few such applications and products are already available independently, integrating them on a single platform and making them accessible on multiple channels will be the end goal that utility players will need to work on,” they write.

Utilities are also integrating smart meters of their own throughout the supply chain. Forward-thinking utilities are using these meters to improve the flow of data through their business and out to the consumer, says the team at Power Technology. This results in improved service and happier, better-informed customers. 

Take The Houston Public Works and Engineering Department, as customer experience futurist Blake Morgan points out. The city’s network of smart meters can be checked remotely from a central location. This saves a significant amount of time and money. It also generates huge quantities of data that can be shared with customers through their own meters and devices.

Building An All-in-One Digital Platform 

Being customer-centric means putting the customer at the center of everything. In the near future, utilities that get digital right will be able to make this a reality through personalized, omnichannel platforms. 

Today, many energy providers are offering customers detailed usage data that enables them to compare past usage and even predict future usage. It’s not enough to provide customers with this data, however. It must be provided in an easily accessible and easily understandable way, one that gives them a sense of ownership and control. 

Deloitte’s Jian Wei, Suzanna Sanborn and Andrew Slaughter believe that in the future utility customers will have a much more personal relationship with their provider. The “smart home platform” the Deloitte researchers envision will allow customers to manage their energy use, pay their bills and access additional products in real time, as needed.

Consumers already expect this kind of constant connectivity from many of the service providers in their lives. Banks and ride-sharing services have embraced this model. It follows, then that they will begin to expect their other service providers to offer some sort of mobile channel — likely an app — that consumers a real-time look into their utility consumption and purchasing options. 

These mobile platforms will become one of the major battlegrounds for utility companies in the near future. The organizations that are able to offer customers more when it comes to control over their electricity are naturally going to move ahead of their competitors, writes Digital Journal editor-at-large Dr. Tim Sandle. Utilities will need to think more like startups and tech companies like Amazon and Uber. That means designing digital-first approaches that take into account the way consumers want to interact with their services. 

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Powering the Move to Renewable Energy 

Consumer demand for green energy is soaring. That’s according to a survey by consultancy Maslansky & Partners, which found that 74 percent of people believe we should use as much solar energy as possible, and 70 percent think all of our energy should come from renewable sources in the near future.  

Demand may be high, but transitioning to renewable energy sources isn’t easy for utilities. Indeed, a successful transition is only possible through data analysis, writes Tech journalist Kayla Matthews. “Utility providers must assess the output of current or planned renewables projects and couple that anticipated total with the likely demand brought about by all the customers using renewables.”

Big data will play a role in helping utilities assess both variables, but so too will AI. By using predictive AI, Matthews says, utilities will be able to make better decisions about which renewables to invest in, how much power will be needed and where exactly that power will be used. 

Advances in manufacturing technology may even help utilities to store renewable energy once it has been generated. Meena Dayak, VP of Integrated Media & Communications at American Public Power Association, says battery storage is one of three big technologies that will enable the green power revolution. The better utilities get at storing the energy they produce, the cheaper that energy will be for customers. 

Technology has a role in each step of the move toward renewable energy. Take a geographic information system (GIS), for instance. Matt Piper, global industry director for utilities and AEC at Esri, notes the technology can be used to make data-based decisions about where to establish renewable energy infrastructure. It can also tell utilities the best locations for consumer-facing outputs such as electric car charging stations.

Becoming a tech-powered, customer-centric business isn’t so much a choice as a necessity. With consumers demanding more of their utility providers than ever before, some providers that don’t transform won’t survive. 

Images by: Brooke Cagle, Nicolas J Leclercq, RawFilm

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