Can you remember the last time you had to start or terminate your utility service? How difficult was the process? Anecdotally, having looked at scores of utility websites over the past few years, we can tell you that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way most utilities onboard, off-board, and generally manage customer interactions online. Many of them look a lot like this:
Utility consultant West Monroe Partners analyzed this issue a few years ago via a proprietary Customer Effort Index (CEI). They found that for the lowest-performing utility websites:
“Key tasks, such as a start/stop service online wizard was not available through the customer portal and users were required to call into the customer rep to enable/disable service.”
Why is this important?
- Customer expectations have changed rapidly, even in the past 2 years. For example, 64% of American households now have Amazon Prime. Like it or not, Amazon and other services have trained a generation of consumers to expect more from their service providers, which also includes utilities. Traditional industries such as banks and telecoms are adapting to this new reality with web tools and apps that put the customer in control with real-time information about their accounts. Utilities are gradually moving in the same direction.
- The current way that most utilities manage customer interactions online leaves much to be desired. Customers often must slog through onerous processes like downloading, printing, and then scanning, faxing, or emailing completed forms. It’s not just the utility customers that suffer. Utility staff go through the hassle of manually inputting the data on the forms into a database, tracking the status of multiple workflows, and handling too many customer requests by phone because the online process is overly-complicated. In addition, these manual processes are prone to human error which introduces more inefficiency and costs when applications or submissions are not processed properly.
- We live in an increasingly mobile world. Over half of web visits are on mobile devices. WaterSmart’s own internal data show that 30% of visits to our Customer Portal are from mobile, and these numbers continue to grow. This means that the easy solution to download and print a PDF and scan it to the website needs to be totally rethought. Any utility-customer interaction needs to be easily accomplished on a mobile device. [bctt tweet="Like it or not, Amazon and other services have trained a generation of consumers to expect more from their service providers, which also includes utilities" username="getwatersmart"]
Recently, we polled a group of water utilities to determine how they currently handle collecting customer information online. Here are the results:
- 50% of respondents have IT staff manually build html forms into their utility websites
- 25% rely on customers to download a PDF
- 12% use a 3rd party non-integrated online forms tool like SurveyMonkey
- 12% don’t have online forms at all and handle requests over the phone
Problems With The Status Quo
Deploying forms is a burden to IT staff, who have to manually code the front end of the website, set-up a database, and create administrative interfaces to allow utility staff to manage the submitted data. We've discussed the challenges of using downloadable PDFs as forms and 3rd party tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms are relatively easy to use and deploy but aren't integrated into existing customer interfaces, and getting data from the form tools into existing utility systems is a manual process. Yet all of these options are superior to what 12 percent of utilities do, which is to not offer customers any online method of submitting information!
Data Collection and Management at Scale
A better way to handle customer interactions online is to do what WaterSmart has done, which is to build a versatile tool that allows utility staff to quickly and easily create and publish any data collection interface they want, without the help of IT staff. This standard module is fully integrated into the WaterSmart platform and automatically ties the front-end data collection with back-end process management and notifications. This means no error-prone, duplicative data entry for utility staff. Furthermore, every form in the Customer Portal is mobile-optimized for your increasingly mobile customer base.
WaterSmart's Forms Module helps utility staff create and deploy any form to the Customer Portal quickly and easily
What are some common use-cases for this powerful capability? Literally anything a utility can think of. Here are some early applications from current WaterSmart customers:
- Stop/transfer service
- Report water waste
- Submit a meter read
- Apply for a customer assistance program (CAP)
- Service request
- Rebate applications
- Apply for lead testing kit
- Sign-up for back-flow testing
- Request a bill charge-back
Making a service request is easy in the Customer Portal
For more sophisticated interactions like Start Service, WaterSmart has developed application interfaces that are accessible outside a gated Customer Portal and can safely collect personal information needed to process a new service request. Interactions that may require a multi-step workflow, like a rebate application, display the submission status to both the customers and utility staff as the request is processed. This is important to ensure that customers can track application status and avoid unnecessary calls to utility staff to check on progress.
By rethinking the utility-customer relationship and how to improve the efficiency and quality of repeatable data-collection processes, any utility can now drive process improvements through their organization while lowering service costs and improving customer satisfaction. Take a moment to think about all the ways you interact with your customers and collect their data. What other applications for digital data collection would you like to see? Let us know! And if you want to see how easy our forms tool is to use, we're happy to give you a demo.
If you thought this was interesting, you may also be interested in reading our 2017 Benchmark Report on Customer Satisfaction.