Customer satisfaction has jumped to the forefront of many utility professionals’ minds over the last several years, and it appears it will not fall in importance any time soon. There are a number of measures utilities can take to enhance customer satisfaction, including measuring satisfaction at the transactional as well as general level to determine areas of improvement; providing fast and easy ways for customers to conduct business with the utility; and resolving the customers’ need(s) during the first contact.

Each of these initiatives falls under some of the call centre trends to watch in 2006. Listening to the voice of the customer, enhancing self-help options and measuring and improving first-call resolution are essential and evolving factors in utility customer care.

CUSTOMERS HEARD LOUD AND CLEAR AT MANY UTILITIES

Transactional surveys, unlike more general image-based customer satisfaction assessments, allow utilities to capture the customer’s impression within a relatively short amount of time following an interaction. If administered properly, transactional surveys can lead to actionable intelligence and help improve a utility’s overall image.

About half of utilities surveyed are conducting transactional customer surveys. While many utilities are cognisant of the importance of measuring customer transactions and acting on this awareness, others have not yet gotten on board.

Of those using transactional surveys, most measure the performance of customer service representatives in the contact centre, while others determine satisfaction related to field service visits, customer experiences while visiting walk-in service centres and service connections. Most utilities using transactional customer surveys are conducting interviews via phone, while others send surveys through the mail or use a combination of both.

Transactional surveys can be administered to customers via phone within 48 to 72 hours of their contact with the utility. However, immediate post-call surveys as well as online surveys can capture the customer’s satisfaction based on the transaction.

For example, if a customer contacts the utility’s call centre about a billing issue, within a
couple of days he/she may receive a phone call requesting participation in a transactional survey. It is possible the call may still be fresh in the customer’s mind. Therefore, the customer may be able to provide detailed answers to the survey questions and possibly some insight on how the call could have been improved.

When designing a transactional survey, utilities should strive to keep the survey brief and ask questions to gather feedback that will lead to actionable results. Also, experts report, utilities can benefit from surveying on a continual basis, but should avoid contacting customers multiple times.

Allowing customer service representatives (CSRs) to assist in the creation of the questionnaire can lead to a survey that gathers valuable customer responses, according to industry specialists.

More than 75% of utilities use image-based, or general, customer satisfaction surveys to gauge performance. The most popular timeframe for administering these surveys is once a year, but this varies from as frequently as once a month to as infrequently as once every five years, or even on an ongoing basis.

Most of the utilities that are conducting image-based surveys report using phone-based surveys to determine general customer satisfaction, while the second most popular option is sending surveys via mail.

CONTINUOUSLY ENHANCING SELF-SERVICE OPTIONS TO PROVIDE A BETTER CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

As with web-based customer service, speech recognition technology has advanced greatly in a short period of time. Since the primitive days of speech recognition software in the early 1990s, the technology has evolved into more conversational tones and can decipher a variety of languages, accents and dialect. Early on, this was a major flaw that led many customers to opt out. Utilities have been implementing speech recognition systems for more than five years, and those on the front lines believe their systems will now encourage customers to stay on the interactive voice response unit (IVR) without transferring to an agent.

Data suggests that approximately 73% of utilities have an IVR; of that number, about 20% have implemented a speech recognition system. A number of other utilities are in the consideration or planning phases of speech recognition, while nearly a third of utilities with an IVR are not considering speech at this time.

 Measuring first-call Resolution

Utilities may implement self-service applications such as an IVR or speech recognition for a variety of reasons, such as decreased costs; more rapid call handling; and increased customer satisfaction because the phone is answered more quickly. Of the nearly 55 respondents who answered the question when asked if the utility’s IVR had positively or negatively impacted customer satisfaction (or not at all), more than half reported this technology has resulted in increased satisfaction.

Whatever the motivation behind the project, utilities must look carefully at the goals they are trying to accomplish in order to reap the most rewards from the application’s abilities. Efficiency is the single most important aspect of a speech or IVR system. As with other software projects, getting participation from stakeholders is important when designing a new IVR system.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT

After all, the first thing many customers hear when contacting their utility is an automated system. First impressions – or even second and third – can make a difference in the customer’s perception of the utility. Not unlike other technologies, IVR and speech recognition applications continue to evolve. Customers have also become more  familiar with these systems, as they are used in many customer service industries. As with other forms of selfservice, primarily the web, the more commonplace this channel becomes, the more likelihood of increased customer acceptance.

In addition to promoting the IVR and its benefits to increase usage, Industry experts suggest that transactional surveys and continuous system enhancements are important for improving usage.

Web-based customer service is becoming increasingly commonplace across the utility industry – 95% of investorowned utilities that took part in a recent survey offer some form of web-based customer care, followed by 65% of cooperatives and 53% of municipals and public power districts.

In order to provide a web site that serves as a useful tool to customers, utilities must first establish what customers want from online services. An effective web site can drive customer satisfaction, which can increase loyalty and the probability a customer will recommend a site to others.

Call volume may or may not be affected by the addition of online services. This factor, however, may also depend on the design and user-friendliness of the utility’s web site.

Many innovative web-based services are currently in the planning stages for utilities, including portals for certain customer segments, enhanced outage reporting sites and updated or new payment options.

MOVE OVER CALL HANDLE TIME – FIRST-CALL RESOLUTION IS KING

Utility customer service officials have many acts to juggle. They must ensure that:

• Customers’ bills are correct and delivered on time;
• The utility’s interactive voice response unit offers the selections customers need;
• Callers are greeted by a courteous and helpful customer service representative; and
• When contact is made with that representative, that all questions are answered and issues addressed to the customer’s satisfaction – in one call.

This last metric is otherwise known as first-call resolution (FCR).

As utilities move to measure FCR, more and more companies have refocused their efforts on handling the customer’s issue thoroughly rather than quickly. This can result in longer average handle times, but also reduced repeat calls. Cost savings, which can vary by utility type and size, can be achieved through enhancing first call resolution. Educating and empowering CSRs to handle a variety of customer care issues can lead to better call handling, reducing the need for customers to make a second contact.

According to recent data, approximately 34% of utilities are measuring first-call resolution and about 15% are in the process of developing a programme, compared with 21% of utilities that were measuring FCR and 10% that were developing a programme in 2005.

When asked to rank the importance of certain key performance indicators (KPIs) such as call handle time, average speed of answer and first-call resolution on a scale of 1 to 5, average speed of answer and first-call resolution received more 4s and 5s than call handle time, revealing the importance utilities are placing on serving customers in a timely and thorough fashion.

Customer surveys are the most popular form of gauging if a utility is meeting its FCR goals, while some utilities also use quality assurance monitoring, or track repeat calls and call transfers.

At the end of the day, it is all about the customer experience. Top-notch customer service can lead to higher satisfaction, and a utility’s knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses – together with the will to act upon this knowledge – can result in continually increasing levels of customer care.