Utilities as a monopolistic commodity
Utilities have been regarded as monopolistic commodity providers for decades, with the products and services offered by one utility not much different from those offered by another. In many areas, markets have been determined solely on geography and have enjoyed a monopoly status governed by state and local regulations. However, changing times have brought significant challenges for utilities: the complexities and proliferation of distributed energy resources; new regulatory impacts on customer rates and communications; an explosion of operational and customer-centric data points (often housed in disparate silos); and the pressure of increased customer expectations (beyond reliability).
Addressing the challenges of these changing times means differentiating your organization from the others through the experience you are delivering to customers. This can be achieved in large part by establishing direct and relevant communications with customers about the availability and usage of your new and existing products and services. While most utilities, of course, have long-standing communication channels for customer service, billing and invoicing, how we communicate with customers in an omnichannel world is one more thing that has experienced considerable change and development over recent years.
Since the 1990s, communication channels have evolved from mail, fax and call center to include email, the web, SMS and social media. This proliferation of channels represents more than a simple shift in technologies; the change has been from one-directional communication to a constant bi-directional process that puts customers and public opinion in control. Yet today, many – if not most – utilities can only implement the more typical chaotic mix of uncoordinated communications that can easily turn into a fragmented experience for customers, leaving them feeling confused or frustrated. For utilities, this mix introduces inefficiencies, opportunities for miscommunication and costly errors.
Working across data silos
Currently, many utilities are still managing communications through separate teams that use incompatible technologies for individual channels, often multiplying the complexity and cost of efforts while diminishing the returns – and delivering less than desired outcomes for the organization. The greatest challenge for most utilities is how to evolve from existing, disparate customer communication “programs” that deliver a complex mix of scattered data via isolated systems and/or single-purpose applications, to one that is cohesive, results-driven and cost-effective.
Modern customer communication strategies are designed to enable the process of communication design and delivery to standardize and personalize communications for automated delivery across channels—without duplicating efforts. Benefits include increased efficiency, reduced manual processes, optimized/agile bill redesigns, fewer mistakes, and an enhanced customer experience.
Consumers could be engaged initially by several types of communications that you control, and some that you may influence but may not directly control. Direct marketing campaigns, programs like those that provide tips for conserving energy to lower consumers’ costs, and social media networking each attempt to increase the level of active engagement with customers in their own way. Some consumers will respond to print, others prefer email and the web, some may seek an agent or call center representative, and some may prefer exclusively mobile experiences.
Developing and effectively managing customer communications requires crafting a customer communications management (CCM) strategy for the entire enterprise that considers the perspective of your customers and your employees, and is created with the input of operations, customer service and IT. An ideal communication portfolio will effectively manage discrete campaigns across multiple channels, paying attention to the limitations and opportunities offered by each.
An integrated platform
A utility can then determine the best option for each communication piece in the context of your overall strategy. Many utilities have a mix of systems that generate communications through isolated islands of technology. In assessing your existing applications, you have the option to refresh, reboot or remove them, taking into account that today’s thin-client interactive solutions can deliver correspondence and informational messaging quickly and efficiently. The modern CCM platform can also offer document repurposing technology to allow output from legacy systems to be refreshed, updated and upgraded.
Ideally, a CCM solution should include a design tool, a composition engine, a workflow/rule engine and omnichannel output management capabilities to enable customer interactions through a wide range of communication media: mobile, email, SMS, websites, print and customer self-service. These systems can replace hundreds of legacy templates with a single, flexible user experience that provides relevant, yet approved, content to your customers in less time. Additionally, your CCM solution should provide the capability for a synchronized omnichannel preview of communications, so those ensuring compliance and brand standards can understand and have control over what each communication will look like on each different channel.
Baby boomer, Generation X, Generation Y, and Millennial customers have differing communication preferences, and every demographic expects information to be available 24/7. These external forces put an incredible strain on current communication systems, especially when they are not strategically aligned.
Managing all these moving parts by implementing an integrated, enterprise-wide communications strategy will support efforts to meet customer expectations and will create and maintain positive customer relationships. Utilities that have implemented a successful communications strategy enjoy stronger brand identity, improved operational efficiencies, reduced costs and successful implementation of customer engagement initiatives.
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