For the last three decades utilities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars – all in the name of improving customer service. Even in the heavily regulated environment in which they conducted business, utilities tried to ensure the most effective customer service within the limits of regulation.

Then, in the 1990s, utilities began feeling the pressures coming from the trend toward deregulation and competition. Now they began to look at ways to serve the good customers better, and to ensure customer retention. Utility companies again spent millions of dollars on new technologies, customer information systems, customer relationship management software, IVR technologies, Web technologies and automated metering. Most of this was done in the name of ‘positioning for deregulation and competition’, with little or no return on investment (ROI) expected.

Since the California energy market failure in 2001, however, utility companies have retreated from much of the proactive effort and reverted to a back-to-basics philosophy, which means increasing efficiency and cutting costs. As a result many utility companies have cut staffing levels, which will eventually impact on customer service levels.

I believe that utility companies have done an excellent job of providing reliable and cost effective service. They are, for the most part, excellent operators – but despite all the investment, experimentation and customer focus groups, utilities still have a way to go to understand their customers.

WHAT DO CUSTOMERS WANT?

For many years I was CIO of a utility, and we spent much of our time discussing systems that supported customer activities. During the latter part of the 1990s we believed we were really implementing customer-oriented business processes that would serve the customer faster and more conveniently, and we were rapidly implementing technologies to support both the business and our customers.

Today I am a customer, just like everyone else. When I have a problem, I have to deal with it just like everyone else – and that has been an enlightening experience.

What do I want from the utility companies I deal with? I would be delighted if my service always worked as expected, if I received a correct bill at competitive rates, and – if I need special service – I would be very happy if the process to obtain that service was easy and the people I dealt with were friendly and helpful. If those things happened, I would gladly send my payment in on time and would be a totally satisfied customer, with no reason ever to switch to a competitor.

But we all know that anything that human beings design and build will eventually fail. So occasionally I expect to call the utility company with an outage report, request for service or an enquiry about my bill.

One electric company I deal with recently received a rate increase from the Public Service Commission. The general perception of its customers was that the proposed increase was “to bail out the company for its failed unregulated business ventures.” Nothing this company does will make customers really happy now, because their rates are not competitive compared to other electricity rates in the region.

When you call that company, you get their IVR (interactive voice response) and listen to several options. Then you try to get a person and get disconnected. Then you call the corporate office, and get told to call the call centre again. This seems to be a case of a company that has cut costs and staffing levels, probably out of dire necessity, to the point that they cannot communicate with the public or handle customer inquiries properly. Consequently, their technology implementation has flaws, and customer care is perceived as very poor.

Another electricity utility requires me to submit a request with a $100 fee for the permit when I want to build around one of its facilities. They examine my request, deny it, and keep the money as a processing fee. The problem is that this company has no published rules for denying or accepting such a request. This company has poor policy and enforcement, with poor communications with its customers. Despite the fact that its service is reliable and its rates competitive, I am no longer a totally satisfied customer.

What about the situation where an electric utility has a relatively new CIS, new IVR, on-line web bill presentment and payment and AMR – but have cut their costs and staffing levels so low it is difficult to provide expected services? When I need temporary service for new building construction I must go to a company service centre and pay an installation fee, pick up a meter base, mount it according to company specifications, and run the cable to it myself. Then the utility company will send a crew out to install a meter and connect the cable to the power source. This is a poor business process for a new customer.

I also buy electricity from a rural co-operative. Until recently I read my own meter, and received my bill each month on a post card. Today, they have a new CIS and have implemented AMR. They sent out a notice of the coming change, telling customers why they had changed and what to expect. When the new bill arrived it was correct and easy to understand, and I called them to see how they had implemented their AMR system. On the first ring I got a real live person, who was knowledgeable about the entire implementation and who was friendly and informative.

A few days later I received a refund cheque, because the co-op had had a good year and had therefore refunded a percentage of my annual bill. What a pleasant surprise! A company with the correct technology and business process for the customer base!

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

After millions of dollars invested in technologies to improve customer service, utilities have improved internal efficiencies and possibly the bottom line, but have not properly considered what customers want. As I review agendas from utility industry conferences, it appears that the focus remains on internal efficiencies, cost reduction, revenue enhancement by reducing bad debts, outsourcing and customer self-service.

The only thing the customer may appreciate in all of this is that rates should be under better control. But from the perspective of the customer, utilities are more complex to deal with, and service levels are no better, than they were in years past. I believe utilities will be hard pressed to find customers who are more satisfied today than they were ten years ago. In fact, utilities will probably discover high customer dissatisfaction when the next major storm hits or when they must increase rates.

Customers should be considered first and foremost in business process design and decisions. Utilities still need to make it easy and pleasant for customers to do business with them, and should always communicate business changes effectively. Utilities should ask: “How well do customers embrace the new business processes and technologies we have implemented?”

If customers have embraced and adopted the IVR, Web payment, self-service and so on, then all utilities need to do is to further improve those services where possible. However, if there is low acceptance of a process, perhaps utilities should ask if their customers want it or not. In the technology-driven world of today IVR, Internet and self-service is more readily accepted by the younger members of our culture, but I believe that most of us still want to deal with people when possible, and that the transaction should always be a positive experience. I hope utilities, and the vendors who support them, will remember that soon.