Identifying challenges & opportunities for utility road maps
For utilities, serving customers goes beyond supplying the service they have contracted. It means providing those customers simple and frictionless interactions with the utility.
Customers expect intuitive interfaces to place orders for products, request services, track their usage, view service providers’ arrival times, view and pay their invoices, and, yes, tell all their friends about a good or a bad experience. So why should they not expect to do the same with their utility providers?
Often, though, a utility’s customer information system (CIS) has a lifespan that goes well beyond a decade, sometimes even two. Because of this, keeping up with changes in technology and customer expectations do not and cannot mean implementing a whole new system every few years. While some utilities are indeed ready for a CIS replacement today, others must take incremental steps to improve the systems they currently have.
Every utility out there has a unique path in its journey to provide the ultimate in customer experience, and each is at a different stage in that journey. But because it can be a long journey, a utility manager cannot just think about what changes need to be made today. Identifying the correct direction for the road map can be broken down into four broad areas of consideration.
1. Customer Expectations & Demands
Researching, discussing, and documenting the capabilities your customers demand from your utility is simply a best practice for defining requirements for a customer experience project. The main reason is that customer expectations of how they interact with each other, merchants and utility providers have evolved. While utilities live and breathe provisioning, truck rolls, transmission lines and pipes, consumers do not live in that world. They live in a world dominated by Netflix, Apple, Google, Amazon and myriad other service providers whose online experiences have reshaped our expectations of information delivery and customer service.
Customers want information available at their fingertips on mobile devices — not just a paper billing statement, not just a downloadable PDF, and certainly not via a phone call. If they can view and change any aspect of their order, billing and service request on major retailer websites and apps, they expect to be able to do it for any provider — and that includes their utility companies. The days when you could tell a customer that “someone will be there between 12 and 6 p.m.” are all but gone. Today’s customers can track the exact location and ETA for an Uber car or even a service technician coming to replace their auto windshield. They also expect to see in real time exactly when the utility technician will arrive to fix their meter, so they do not spend their whole day waiting around, unable to attend to anything else.
Customers also want utilities to tell them how they can lower their bill, something that can only be done when utilities have consumption data and customer analytics. They want utilities to suggest how they might improve their situation, based on their past behaviors and their own preferences.
2. Technology Applications
The next consideration is the applications needed to deliver on these customer expectations. Customer information systems (CIS) should meet customers’ present and future expectations of delivering a consistent easy customer experience through multiple channels and real time data, whether that is through implementing a new CIS or by integrating such capabilities into an existing solution.
A big consideration is delivering business value, and that means making internal employees more efficient in their jobs. Just like end consumers, employees use dozens of apps on their smartphones and tablets with access to millions of data points at any time. Their work apps need to be well integrated and be responsive with real-time information. In other words, they should give workers the same seamless experience, so they can do their jobs quickly and efficiently.
Further, customer service applications should be process-driven rather than functionality-driven. They should improve the business not just support it. That means app usage should flow naturally within business processes, rather than become something that requires multiple disjointed steps. In other words, the applications should make business processes faster, more efficient and less error-prone.
Finally, technology applications need to be future-proof. Technology changes rapidly, and applications must be flexible and adaptable enough to keep up. A utility cannot afford to continue operating on a years-old platform that is barely maintained, or even a newer system based on a closed proprietary platform. In either case, the utility will not be able to quickly adapt or extend the system as customer expectations, regulations, or internal business processes change.
3. Technology Infrastructure
Of course, no technology road map can ignore the underlying infrastructure. Infrastructure provides the computing power, storage, connectivity, applications, databases, networks, automated processes, security and more — all of which are necessary to support both internal users and utility end customers. While there are many infrastructure needs any CIS project should consider, below are a few key elements.
In today’s world of cyberattacks and data theft, it goes without saying that digital infrastructure must be secure. That includes firewalls, intrusion monitoring and detection, and other breach-thwarting components. In addition, utilities’ and their customers’ data must be securely encrypted, rendering it useless in the case of an actual breach. Ensure that the datacenter will identify threats early on, and they routinely scan systems to detect vulnerabilities before they are exploited.
Scalability & Responsiveness
While there are exceptions to the rule, urban utility providers usually experience a slow but steady rise in customers. Utility infrastructure must be capable of handling the increased number of customers and the corresponding volume of customer service requests and do so in a quick, responsive manner. Besides the back-end servers, web servers, network and databases must scale to handle more and more connections, as more customers take advantage of the new self-service capabilities.
All applications need to be reliable. They must be up, available and working properly no matter what. For example, the growing storm frequency impacts utilities by increasing the number of service and repair requests and corresponding workloads and could possibly shut them down completely. Utility infrastructure should have well-defined and tested disaster recovery and business continuity (BC/DR) plans to ensure they can resume operations in a timely manner to handle such quick changes in demand.
They need at least a Tier 3 data center to run an application as critical as a CIS. With a Tier 3 data center, utilities get power and storage redundancies that will provide 99.982% availability or annual downtime of less than 2 hours per year. By working with an established, trusted tier 3 or 4 data center, utility managers can ensure that not only will they have the best availability with minimal downtime but also the best protection over their and their customers’ valuable data.
4. Skill Set & Resources
Despite having a skilled IT team, how are they handling their current workload? Will they have the skills they need to support new technology in the future? Many utilities are seeing long-time employees retire, and this will only increase over the next five years. Not only are municipalities losing resources with deep experience in how utilities operate, they are also struggling to attract new employees, especially in technology-related areas.
These are factors to consider when determining the newer technologies needed to support customers in the future. Inability to easily maintain a team with a deep understanding of both utilities and the latest technology, may require managers, supervisors and directors to look for a partner that does have that knowledge and experience. A partner that can both support existing systems and help plan for future technologies to meet a utility’s future business goals and customer expectations would be prudent.
Utilities need to have a plan for the future of their customer technology, and a road map will help achieve that goal. The plan needs to be flexible. It must adjust to changing times, to new technologies, new capabilities and new expectations, so those running utilities can react quickly to better meet customers’ needs. By following the considerations provided, utilities will be better armed with knowledge to effectively navigate the road to reaching the ultimate CIS.