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Five ways the utilities sector can step up in the face of Covid-19

Martin Taylor, deputy CEO at Content Guru, shares with us five steps the utilities sector can take to provide a seamless omnichannel customer experience in the face of Covid-19.

It is critical for organisations in the utilities sector to provide a reliable service for consumers, especially amidst the uncertainty of Covid-19.

Yet, recent research shows that two thirds of consumers say they have not been receiving any proactive contact from their energy supplier during the Covid-19 lockdown.

This is a stark statistic – the need to optimise both offline and online operations has never been clearer for companies operating in the utilities sector.

However, for those organisations that are already successfully combining the two areas with omnichannel customer engagement, managing through this pandemic should be smoother sailing.

Every modern company should have multiple communications channels available in their service model. However, this only works if consistency is maintained across all channels, with no detriment to the service or experience people receive.

This is what makes a service experience omnichannel, rather than simply multichannel. The utilities sector is a prime example of an area where – during uncertain times such as these – the omnichannel model plays a vital role.

With that in mind, here are five key areas utilities sector organisations should focus on to provide an agile and seamless omnichannel approach in face of the Covid-19 pandemic and carry this through when we get over the other side of it: 

1. Cater to your customers’ preferred channels

In the utilities sector it is particularly important to be able to provide multiple engagement channels. One key consideration to accommodating this is not just offering those channels, but also understanding that everyone has their own preferences across both ‘traditional’ and digital platforms.

This has made it important for organisations to understand their audience’s channel preferences, and then utilise that knowledge to engage with people through the best communication channel for them. 

For example, many consumers now are turning to social media as a channel to communicate with providers, for fear that traditional means like email and telephone will result in a delayed response.

Best practice then dictates that utilities companies should stick to these choices and proactively provide customers with updates at this difficult time, thereby avoiding the risk of alienating consumers with spam-like attempts to reach them across every available channel.

Ofgem’s recently strengthened Consumer Vulnerability Strategy makes it more important than ever to make a variety of inclusive channels available to customers.

Communication is key to help protect the safety of the most vulnerable and it is essential that these customers have access to utilities companies via their preferred channels.

For example, many elderly people would prefer to speak to an energy provider over the phone, and might be discouraged if they feel forced to use internet-only channels.

2. The power of one cloud-based omnichannel solution

As with many other industries in today’s data-driven economy, the way technology is applied in customer experience environments has been disrupted by solutions from cloud-based service providers.

Businesses are making a strategic move away from traditional on-premise infrastructure and software platforms in favour of versatile ‘as-a-service’ options which broaden the functionality and flexibility available while reducing the need for big ticket CapEx investment.

This transformation should certainly be reflected in the utilities sector, when making a small investment in turbulent times will provide returns for years into the future.

However, in doing so, organisations need to be mindful that trying to build an omnichannel solution from disparate service providers can present integration challenges and introduce multiple points of potential failure into the wider communications platform.

Providers who can offer a single coherent architecture are often better placed to meet the strategic and operational needs of the contact centre.

3. Provide support, quickly, accurately, and proactively

While people had already come to expect real-time responses to enquiries, new consumer behaviours adopted during the Covid-19 pandemic have turned that expectation into a demand.

From gaining information on their utilities bills, to needing assistance with a leaky tap, people now require immediate support on issues they deem important.

Furthermore, many consumers now further expect proactive communication from providers. This means that agents who don’t have to spend time searching for answers to enquiries are much better placed to meet today’s service expectations.

For instance, and to deliver on this requirement, it’s likely that traditional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems will be replaced by much more sophisticated and effective Natural Language Processing (NLP) systems.

Any organisation priding itself on providing a best-in-class service experience needs to act quickly if they want to meet the new and evolving requirements of today’s consumers.

4. Matching service to unprecedented spikes in demand 

Even for contact centres that are used to dealing with high volumes, handling spikes in demand can prove difficult across an omnichannel environment.

At the moment, with large quantities of employees working from home due to Covid-19, there has been an increase in consumption.

This has been a major source of anxiety for many homeowners or tenants who have been furloughed, for example, who are now concerned about being unable to afford a hike in their bills.

Contact centres working with cloud infrastructure are ideally placed to deal with high levels of enquiries around issues such as these, and can ensure strong service levels even when demand jumps. 

Screen-pops bring up citizen data and information on past interactions directly to agents, reducing frustration as callers don’t have to repeat information they have already provided.

Using intelligent automation can route enquiries to the most appropriate available agent or chatbot, who are also equipped with the right information to engage with the contact. This ensures that citizens are able to get the answers they need, without agents becoming overwhelmed by contact levels. 

However, as a heavily regulated industry, and with a number of employees now working from home due to Covid-19, utilities companies need to continue to ensure that this scalable technology meets security and compliance requirements even while colleagues are working remotely.

To do so, a cloud solution with two-factor agent authentication is necessary to ensure that, even if an unauthorised person accesses a company device, no data will be at risk.

5. Make it easy for customers to self-service using NLP 

The sophistication and use of NLP has developed enormously in recent years, and research suggests that 65% of 25-49 year olds speak to their voice-enabled devices at least once per day. Instead of a value-add, offering effective NLP as part of a wider omnichannel strategy is becoming a must-have.

In practical terms, by automating the handling of simple interactions, live agents can deal with more complex or urgent enquiries. Empowering people by routing them to an AI service accelerates their call resolution, reduces frustration and improves satisfaction.

However, it is essential that AI systems can process this data effectively and direct customers and agents towards accurate information. This requires a base platform with the capability of uniting all relevant systems, so that the AI can draw from multiple databases to formulate a response.

The sudden increased demand for ‘as-a-service’ omnichannel offerings is clear in the utilities sector. Providers who want to map a successful route through this complicated landscape must attain a comprehensive understanding of how to reassure their customers and thus maintain long-term relationships with them.

Customer experience is now the key differentiator across all markets, but particularly for businesses in the utilities sector.  Consumers expect and deserve an attentive and efficient long-term relationship that can take place seamlessly across every channel during these difficult times.

Listening to and catering for consumers masterfully will be absolutely vital to navigating a way through the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. 

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