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Interview - Utilities: How to get from the Service Desert to the Beach Bar

The driving force of the utility industry is the transformation from power generation to digital services like e-mobility as a megatrend. Modern, digital customers now expect utilities to provide them with exactly the same comprehensive customer experience they have come to expect when online shopping: If the provider is not available any time and via all channels, they will not become customers in the first place or simply change their current provider. Constant availability and AI-based customer service have become decisive competitive factors.

However, according to a recent PWC study, "the energy sector is still in the early stages of development with regard to 2.0 services". The "constant further development of self-service services for customers is a decisive industry driver for the utilities". Here, "in the future, AI-based assistance systems will also increasingly support".

Nicolai Jereb:

In which areas does CreaLog support digitization in the utilities industry?

Stefan Riesel:

We work in three central areas.
First of all, of course, the entire customer service, also known as customer care - including telephone self-service via AI-supported voice portals. Customers can report their meter reading, change their address, adjust their advance payment or get answers to FAQs.

Secondly, the equally important area of incident management for control centres and service hotlines, which affects many customers simultaneously in the event of network faults. Callers are pre-qualified, informed about malfunctions and, if desired, even called back automatically as soon as the fault has been rectified.

The third area concerns internal processes in the network control centres of the utilities. This involves systems for recording and documenting calls relating to load distribution, electricity trading and the management of network elements.

Potentials for utilities

Self services
for customers

Control center &
Customer hotline

IT hotline &
Utility infrastructure

 
  • Report counter readings
  • Change addresses
  • Change bank details
  • Adjust advance payments
  • FAQ
  • Top-up prepaid meter
  • Customer satisfaction surveys
 
 
  • Pre-qualification
  • Management of disruption announcement
  • Logon and logoff system for network elements
  • Call back after problem solving
  • Call recording
 
 
  • Password reset
  • Trouble Ticket Management
  • Alerting
  • Pre-qualification
  • Auto-Attendant
  • Queueing
  • Unified Messaging
  • Compulsory announcements before recording
  • Call recording
 

Let's start at the very beginning: why customer self-service by voice at all?

There are several reasons for this: With the establishment of digital voice assistants like Siri, Alexa or Google Home in private everyday life, the acceptance of voice control has grown enormously. Users are willing to communicate with machines and accept the offer if the service is fast and good.

But that's what chatbots are for now, right?

Simply speaking yes, but for most customers the quick access by phone is much easier than typing a text on a PC or Smartphone. And what a smart chatbot can do as a text-based dialog system, an AI-supported VoiceBot can easily reproduce on the phone. From practical experience I can confirm that the customers of many municipal utilities are very happy to be helped by our VoiceBots.

To the point, what are the solutions able to do now, what else is possible?

A completely new customer service system will soon be launched at a utility in Germany.
In the first project phase we implement the pre-qualification of the callers via a natural language dialog. The technology used is called Natural Language Understanding (NLU). So the VoiceBot understands the spoken word, no matter how the caller likes to express his request.

For an input of the customer number or name this may sound profane, but the next possible project phase goes one step further: We can then teach the VoiceBot, in close cooperation with the service staff, how the callers formulate their request for very different topics. And what the best answers should look like in order to clarify the issue on the first call to find the next best action. This will enhance the first call resolution rate (FCR) significantly.

Meter readings can be transmitted very intelligently and independently by telephone, including plausibility checks and direct transfer to SAP IS-U or other backends.

In addition, our VoiceBots are able to process address changes, answer FAQs on topics such as relocation or smart meters, change regular payments or prepare a contract change.

Does this only work for standard topics?

Not only. But experts estimate that 70 to 80 percent of all service requests at utilities are exactly these simple standard questions, which can be answered wonderfully structured and automated by a VoiceBot. Fast, uncomplicated and around the clock, seven days a week.

This means that the supplier is always available and no customer has to wait in the call queue or call again the next day. VoiceBots are generally never annoyed and are always friendly and helpful.

Will human employees then become superfluous?

No, no way! After all, the employees in the service department are relieved of standards and have the opportunity to focus on topics requiring intensive consultation without time pressure. This could be individual energy consulting, for example.

At the same time, you position your company as an innovative energy service provider with a modern customer service for a young, mobile and smart target group.

And what happens if the VoiceBot doesn't know what to answer or do?

I'm glad you brought that up.
As a rule, the caller is then naturally transferred to a personal contact person.

And then the customer has to start all over again with his request?

No, this might have been true in the past, unfortunately too often, but only because the information from the VoiceBot was not passed on to the employee in the service department. Today, the so-called 'digital handshake', i.e. the automated transfer of already recorded information, has to work perfectly. Otherwise the impressive customer experience will go down the drain very quickly.

Our solutions are therefore generally integrated with the ICT systems of the utility. This way the call data is reliably transferred to the employees and the customers can continue with their request directly where they left the VoiceBot.

So can energy providers immediately go to full power with a VoiceBot?

Not so fast (laughs). Even for AI-based VoiceBots an intensive pre-planning is essential. We therefore recommend taking small steps first to gain experience and continuously asking customers how they are getting along with the VoiceBot and whether they are satisfied with the service.

The knowledge gained from this must of course be implemented immediately, this is part of a concise quality management. In the end, it is all about the acceptance of an automated customer dialog.

And how does a power supply company identify a suitable realization partner?

The potential partner should have been working in this field for as long as possible, should not promise heaven and earth and should make fair and realistic offers. In addition, he should have verifiable references and his employees should be experts with the relevant specialist knowledge.

Speaking of incident management, a critical area for any utility. How exactly can you help here?

Let's just go through the process: First the callers are greeted by the voice portal of the fault reporting center. If there is a general supply disruption, they will receive the relevant general information. If this is not the case, they can optionally be informed about already known regional faults by entering their local postcode. If they want to report a new malfunction, they are directly transferred to a human employee.

How does the machine know about the malfunction and who takes care of the organization of the required announcements?

This is relatively simple: In the event of a fault within the network infrastructure, a previously defined alarm chain is triggered. The central control centre registers the location and extent of the fault and transfers the data directly to the voice portal via our management suite or a direct connection.

If a caller now reports, for example, an interruption of the electricity or gas supply in his home, the system checks the database to see whether the fault is already known for the postcode area in question.

Our customer Netze BW, one of the four largest utilities in Germany, offers this service to all regional energy suppliers in Baden-Württemberg - 24/7. This solution has been proven to handle up to 80 percent of the fault reports completely independently. That is very impressive!

The third domain is still missing ...

Yes, exactly. This is about the internal processes of the utilities in their network control centres. In other words, topics such as load distribution, electricity trading or switching conversations, i.e. the connection or disconnection of network elements. According to German law, these conversations must be recorded. Our solution welcomes the called parties before the recording and informs them that the entire conversation is being recorded.

In case of doubt, this means that evidence of agreements and understandings reached will be available later. After all, this is the highly sensitive area of network infrastructure. Among other things, this involves 'switching calls', i.e. the switching on and off of lines, and thus safety-related issues for the employees who work on the lines, but in some cases simply a lot of money is at stake, when buying and selling energy.

Basically, our solutions create the technical prerequisites for many applications such as pre-qualification, switching, queueing, unified messaging or customer surveys. These include password resets for employees or management alerts.

What is your conclusion on digitization at utilities?

To exaggerate a little, one could say that modern self-service offers bring utilities customers from the service desert directly to the beach bar.

In dryer words: VoiceBots improve the customer dialog, optimize the customer experience (CX) and lead to stronger customer loyalty - and all this at lower costs! The digitalization of internal processes in the control centers ensures transparent and verifiable telephone communication in the sensitive and capital-intensive areas of energy supply.

With our 40 or so customers in Germany and the EU, all the above is already working very well!

 

Stefan Riesel - CreaLog Key Account Manager. With his many years of expertise in the energy industry, he is a sought-after expert when it comes to topics such as digitalization and automation.
Nicolai Jereb - Specialized journalist. Writing about financial topics, technology and customer service for many years. His numerous articles make even complex topics understandable for everyone.
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