I recently had an opportunity to attend CS Week – the premier customer service-focused conference for utility companies in the North American market – in Phoenix, Arizona. The event was well-attended by top professionals from within the customer service, payments, and field service departments of utilities across the region.
However, as quickly as utilities are moving towards better service, customer expectations are getting increasingly difficult to match up to. This creates a new set of constraints and challenges for utility operations departments to operate around. A stronger internal emphasis from the utility C-suite on meeting customer service standards means that these organizations must strive to increase efficiency and rethink traditional operations models to achieve quicker response time for customer issues and grid outages.
Service windows are getting tighter, and expectations are getting higher
The days of the 6 hour appointment window for field service planners is falling by the wayside. A changing customer base with ever busier lives means that utilities are forced to respond to issues within tighter time windows. To meet these increasingly smaller appointment windows, field operations efficiency is now more critical than ever, and the scheduling of work must be done within the constraints of a whole new set of customer SLAs. This puts more strain on dispatchers and planners, as well as managers who must look for new ways to increase efficiency.
In addition to customer expectations, many utilities are held to on-time performance standards regulating bodies. One speaker explained that his utility needed to arrive within a scheduled appointment window 96% of the time. While utilities are currently able to meet these standards, it is often by the smallest of margins. For instance, if told that a technician will be on premise between 8 AM and 12 PM, arriving at 11:58 AM qualifies as on-time. However, if a job takes 45 minutes to complete, customers are understandably annoyed when the technician finally walks out the door at 12:45.
Intelligent planning software that takes into account service windows, and determines the optimal technician based on skillset, parts and equipment availability, and current location will help utilities to meet these ever-increasing demands from customers. The challenge lies in keeping costs at a minimum while doing so.
Many utilities, particularly those that are investor-owned, deal with an entirely different set of pressures to improve their operational efficiency. Fortis Inc., for instance, which owns and operates gas and electric utilities throughout North America, has a cost model in which a set percentage of revenue must go towards investors as well as towards public reinvestment. This means their only true lever for increasing profitability lies in reducing operating costs.
Ferenc Pataki of FortisBC spoke in a session about how his service teams have been able to realize major decreases in both travel and idle time for field technicians by rethinking their work order scheduling. Previously, work scheduling was being done inefficiently, with field techs often driving past each other on the way to their next work site to replace a gas meter. This led to up to 50% of a tech’s day being spent on travel. FortisBC optimized their scheduling by improving the clustering of work locations geographically, reducing travel time dramatically and improving employee satisfaction.
Customer service is becoming a renewed priority for utilities
From conversations I had on-site to speaker sessions I sat in on, it certainly seems that utilities – notorious for leaving something to be desired with their customer responsiveness – are slowly getting their ducks in a row. In a poll conducted at CS Week, over 50% of attendees revealed that their senior leadership discusses customer satisfaction continuously. By implementing more flexible payment solutions like self-service kiosks, online payment portals, and mobile applications that handle everything from reporting customer issues to outage status notifications, utilities are putting more time and energy into getting customer service right.
More importantly, utilities are taking important measures to integrate customer service back into their core operations, with many stating that they are in-sourcing business processes like call center operations and dispatching that had previously been handled outside the organization.
The conference has made this clear: With a strong emphasis placed on efficiency and renewed focus on customer service, utility providers need more than automation to attain the results they’re looking for. They need an integrated, real-time approach to cope with daily disruptions effectively, see the impact of their plans on critical KPIs, and adapt to process changes and internal strategies efficiently.
Utility professionals, what are you doing differently this year to drive up efficiencies and customer satisfaction? Share your perspective below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.