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By Christopher Allan, Journalist, Utility magazine

A recent industry panel session at the 2022 Digital Utilities conference in June brought together utility sector leaders to discuss the role of digital technologies in elevating customer service. Here, we revisit some of the critical debates that emerged from the panel, including topics like what customers are looking for when engaging with utilities, and emerging opportunities for collaboration.

The panel was held during the second day of Digital Utilities 2022, in a conference dedicated to Engaging Customers, and the panellists included Mikala Hehir, General Manager Customer and Community, South East Water; Rebecca Kardos, CEO Council Chair, The Energy Charter and CEO, Aurora Energy; and Josh Pell, Program Manager Customer and Digital Systems, Coliban Water.

The breadth of panellist experience in roles across the utility sector ensured an insightful discussion on the commonalities and divergences of customer engagement experiences, as well as emerging opportunities for engagement.

Rebecca Kardos delivered her insights from her roles as both CEO Council Chair at the Energy Charter and CEO of a founding signatory of the Energy Charter, Aurora Energy. The Energy Charter is a CEO-led national collaboration that supports the energy sector towards a customer-centric future.

As General Manager Customer and Community at South East Water, Mikala Hehir offered insights into the engagement needs and values important to customers in Melbourne’s south-east. Josh Pell, Program Manager Customer and Digital Systems at Coliban Water, explained how his role spans customer and employee experiences, including how technology can bring those parties together for an optimal experience.

The evolution of customer needs

When it comes to customer needs and how the utility – customer relationship has evolved in recent years, Ms Kardos emphasised a fundamental shift towards greater involvement from customers managing their energy over the last two decades.

“When I first started in this sector … it was a really low involvement category with very limited engagement,” Ms Kardos said. “If all things went well, we wouldn’t have any interaction [with customers] – but if things didn’t go well, that’s when we tended to have a lot of the interaction.

“Now it’s fundamentally changed, and we’re seeing our customers wanting to be far more involved. “I think that’s best typified in the electricity sector by the amount of Australians who’ve chosen to generate their own electricity and put solar panels and batteries into their homes.”

For Mr Pell, the key to understanding evolved customer needs is the idea that customers want transactions that might be complex back of house to be fast and effective front of house.

“Customers don’t want to be going through multiple areas of our business to move into a property or get an information statement, or these sorts of everyday transactions,” Mr Pell said.

“They actually want to get this information themselves – or they want it to be delivered, if they are calling in, at the first call. “The customer hasn’t got time for us to go about our business, so we actually need to match our time to the customer’s time.”

Ms Hehir agreed before emphasising the two-way nature of customer engagement and a trend towards online interaction. “Historically, I think most of our customers would engage us when something went wrong – there’s a burst outside on the street, or the bill was higher than they expected,” Ms Hehir said.

“Now, they’re busy – so we need to be engaging with them when it’s relevant and timely. “We’re already seeing call volumes here decline year on year, but online interactions are increasing substantially.”

A new playing field for service delivery

Ms Hehir also sparked an engaging discussion regarding how the customer service delivery of utilities is now measured up against other services provided to customers.

“Some people say to me, ‘Why do we even need to engage customers? It’s not like they have a choice of water service,’” Ms Hehir said. “My customers aren’t comparing us to Coliban, but they are comparing us to AGL, or Netflix, or Telstra, and how easy it is to do various things versus those companies that bill me and provide services to me.”

Indeed, the ease of delivering a digital service to a water utility customer must now measure up against the digital experience on offer from all other utilities, not to mention external service providers.

What does successful engagement look like?

When it comes to successful engagement, Mr Pell emphasised a shift away from the idea that utilities are simply incident response centres, and explored the power of proactive communication.

“From our standpoint, successful engagement is that the ease of doing business with us continues to get easier, and that our customers want to contact us,” Mr Pell said. “To Ms Hehir’s point – customers usually only call when something’s gone awry. We actually want to get that relationship to be a more proactive one. “Proactive communication could be something like us communicating a potential leak – which we’re trialling at the moment.”

Ms Hehir echoed Mr Pell’s statements before emphasising that engagement needs to be personalised and a two-way exchange. “Communication has to be relevant and timely to the person and not just this mass broadcasting,” Ms Hehir said. “And I think ideally, engagement needs to have some kind of two-way exchange so that you know that the interaction is working – that it’s resonated, it’s resulted in some kind of behaviour change or awareness.”

Ms Hehir emphasised how successful engagement balances smooth and invisible service delivery with always ensuring customers are aware of the value of their services. For Ms Kardos, successful engagement doesn’t necessarily equal regular engagement. “I think we’re all customers of the products we sell, and that’s a really fortunate place to be,” Ms Kardos said.

Industry panel – elevating customer service with new technology. Left to right: Utility Editor Jessica Dickers, Mikala Hehir, Rebecca Kardos and Josh Pell

“All our research and my own experience shows that on the whole, you really don’t want to be talking to your energy or your gas, or water utility.

“You just want to flick a switch but have it be affordable, know that it’s been responsibly and effectively and efficiently and sustainably looked after.” Ms Kardos emphasised how a deep respect for customers means recognising the customer’s right to “take control for themselves” in decision-making.

Utilities sit on a mine of data and information so there is an opportunity to empower the customer to make their own informed choices within their home and business when they need to.

Digital programs at Coliban water

Speaking on the opportunities for digital at Coliban Water, Mr Pell highlighted both the customer-facing and internal digital opportunities that are transforming customer interaction.

“We actually changed our CRM and billing systems a couple of years ago now, and we’re in the process of going from a system change to now focusing on how we can actually bolt in improved customer experience and connectivity into those platforms,” Mr Pell said.

“In the front of house, we are implementing a new contact centre platform that can go into our CRM, so that our contact centre staff and customers, regardless of channel, can get access to a customer contact staff member in whatever channel they choose.

“At the same time, our team can get that intel and that visibility of the customer – their previous histories, and what they might be calling about.

“The other part of connectivity is us – and I’m sure every utility is very similar. We’ve got a lot of platforms and systems throughout the business … and we need to connect those together to make a more meaningful customer journey.”

Mr Pell emphasised how connecting asset systems with customer and performance systems could particularly improve proactive communication from the utility side – offering potential for notifications of outages or changes in service performance.

He also spoke insightfully about the need to build customers into plans when devising new digital solutions.

“The biggest mistake utilities can make – and have made before – is that we engineer a solution before we’ve gone and understood how big a problem is to the community that we’re serving,” Mr Pell said.

By internally engineering problems and defining strategies, augmentations, and master plans in a closed manner, Mr Pell warns that utilities might miss an important perspective or priority held dear to the customer.

#Bettertogether and the power of collaboration

Ms Kardos discussed how the Energy Charter’s #BetterTogether initiatives, which call for stakeholders to co-design and work together towards better outcomes for customers, is putting forth the case for future collaboration across utilities.

“The whole Energy Charter, its underpinning fabric, is all around collaboration – not just within the electricity and gas sectors themselves, but even more broadly,” Ms Kardos said.

“Collaboration is one of those things that I think is the essence of The Energy Charter – its recognising that we’re responsible for providing a service that underpins every business and home within our communities.

“At Aurora Energy in Tasmania, we have just started a trial with TasWater, the local water utility, where when we identify a customer in hardship, we could refer them to TasWater as well.

“At the Energy Charter, we’re collaborating with the medical sector on how we can better manage life support. “We’re also collaborating with landholders as we look at how we make the transition to renewables. “I think it is kind of a no-brainer. Listening is the most important thing we can do to better improve customer engagement – but you can’t listen if you’re not collaborating.”

Digital solutions empowering customers in leak management

Ms Hehir spoke passionately about the tangible impact of digital meters and IoT platforms in both saving customers money and saving water for the community.

“We have about 38,000 digital meters in our network at the moment, and we’ve been actively using them to communicate with the customer when we think they might have a leak,” Ms Hehir said.

“About ten per cent of customers with a digital meter have had a leak, and because of the way we’ve been able to notify them and resolve that, they’ve saved between $59 or $350, depending on the size of the leak, before that next quarterly bill would come.“

That’s saved over 200 million litres of water too, so when we talk about needing to invest in the future and augment supplies, actually we’re saving customers money from their bills, but also saving that precious drinking water.

“A lot of those meters have listening devices and sensors that play back out into our network as well. We’re now identifying some of those really small leaks that we wouldn’t have identified before.”

Ms Hehir said this means the utility can make more planned repairs, rather than waiting for emergency bursts. “We’re really hoping that we’ll save customers both in terms of disruption to them and money spent as well.

“This work really started with customers – by knowing what some of their pain points were, and then recognising that digital can really help solve that,” Ms Hehir said.

Register for free to watch the Elevating customer service with new technology panel at Digital Utilities 2022 on demand by visiting www.digitalutilities.com.au.

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