Our thoughts about the average utility customer—along with our tech to make that average utility customer happy—continue to evolve.
Each and every year, CS Week, one of the top utility customer-focused conferences globally, offers up the details on that ever-changing evolution up close and personal to those utility folks dedicated to continued customer happiness.
We sat down with five CS Week insiders to get their views on which branches of that evolutionary track utilities should focus on with short-term planning.
Todd Arnold, retired SVP and CS Week board member, noted the biggest branch in that evolution, a shift in thinking from corporate-driven customer systems to truly customer-driven customer systems—a shift from tech and orgs that make the utility work better to tech and orgs that help put the customer in charge.
Arnold emphasized the entrepreneurship around customer care today and how the industry is really responding to this massive cultural adjustment, which has energized both the industry and the show itself.
For Arnold, that energy also extends out from the colleges and the workshops onto the show floor (and is evident in the collaboration at work, not just between utilities and vendors but between vendors as well these days).
Arnold expects that energy will continue at next year’s CS Week, building on the platform concept that was all the rage at this conference and adding in more options and innovations as utilities get more comfortable with the idea.
Rod Litke, the CEO of CS Week, added to Arnold’s thoughts with trends he saw getting the most attention from both speakers and attendees alike at the conference. His top choice: cloud adoption, though he did note that there is still a bit of reluctance with utilities on that topic here and there. (He also noted that the cloud is inevitable, though, so one item utilities may need to let go with this evolution is the traditional desire to build their own infrastructure, a tidbit that circles back to Arnold’s platform idea once again.)
The inevitability of the cloud and the growing acceptance of platforms both speak to the digital transformation ongoing at utilities worldwide, and it was the top-of-mind concept (in one detailed way or another) for all five of our discussions. Arnold and Litke weren’t alone in leading with that idea. All three of our other chats centered around that, too, whether we were talking with Dana Drysdale, Penni McLean-Conner, or David McKendry.
McKendry, Senior Fellow with the Canadian Electricity Association, made the most dramatic digital transformation statement of all, declaring that utilities used to be companies that delivered power, water, or gas that happened to use IT, but now they are IT companies that happen to deliver power, water, or gas.
McKendry added that this transformation is complicated but that the key to making it work and work well is to simplify it as much as possible for each individual involved in the process, whether that’s a utility employee or a customer.
For Drysdale, VP of Information Systems at San Jose Water, the digital transformation aspect front and center for him at CS Week was customer engagement and the growing mound of research that says digital outreach and digitally-active customers are more engaged and happier.
He also mentioned an interesting offshoot of this customer engagement focus: the rebirth of physical “energy stores” of sorts where customers can ask questions face-to-face with brand ambassadors. (Both the digital aspect of customer engagement and the physical stores are aspects of the personalization trend that’s taken over consumer culture both inside and outside the utility business.)
McLean-Conner, Chief Customer Officer & SVP of Eversource, brought together that personalization and digital transformation connection once more with her top trend at CS Week—namely the “next best offer” (NBO) push. When utilities know their customers’ needs, preferences, desires and problem areas, they are uniquely positioned to give suggestions at appropriate times (say, before a high bill comes) with appropriate actions (such as “turn your thermostat up to 80 while you’re at work to save energy and money, too”).
McLean-Conner labeled the NBO trend both a growing and a meaningful one—one indicative of that customer-centric future every utility has on the horizon.
Some of Litke’s other trend choices (that also mostly fall under the concept of digital transformation) included bots and AI, security of PII data, the “Uberization of field services,” and—in a culture change moment—an increased willingness across utility orgs to spend more on customer service.
McKendry touched on AI as well, along with robotic process automation (which was also a favorite of McLean-Conner) and the evolution of voice from a singular call center channel to the growing use of voice biometrics and voice-activated assistants.
Drysdale tied into the subtext of that voice-activated assistants conversation—how who and what we see as brand ambassadors continues to evolve—by giving a shout out to the growing use of field service staff for customer service. Those folks are a solid part of the digital transformation conversation (as they often have up-to-date outage and maintenance info on a device along for the ride) and perfectly placed to enhance the customer experience and expand personalization with each and every face-to-face moment in the field.
All of our CS Week interviewees are authors—with the exception of Rod Litke who might be better labeled the man who made those books possible.
Todd Arnold wrote “Rethinking Utility Customer Care: Satisfying Your Always Connected, Always On Customer.”
Penni McLean-Conner penned “Profiles in Excellence: Utility Chief Customer Officers.”
David McKendry tapped Arnold, Drysdale and McClean-Conner to contribute to his new book “Leadership Lessons Learned From Our Mentors: Time-Honoured Values That Are Shaping the Utility Customer Experience of the Future.”
All three books are available through CS Week Publishing.