Customer Service Trends for Energy and Utility Companies

Recap CS Week with Mindgrub

In this webinar, Susan Adam, Owner of Strategic Solutions Applied, and Mindgrubbers Rhonda Saffron, Andrew Dalton, Jason Michael Perry discuss customer service trends and key takeaways from CS Week. Whether you attended the conference or sat this one out, we've got the insights you'll want to take back to your team.

Watch the recording or check out the transcript below!



Webinar Transcript

Rhonda Saffron
Well, thank you all for joining us today. We just returned from CS Week in Charlotte, and there was a lot to take in, so we're here to talk about some of those hot topics and go over our takeaways. Let's get started on introductions. I'm Rhonda Saffron. I've been at Mindgrub for about 5 years, and I recently started leading our utility practice. I am joined here by actual utility experts, though, who I'd love to introduce. 

I'll start with Andrew Dalton, who is based in New Orleans. He is head of our consulting practice here at Mindgrub and he's responsible for partnering with our clients to strategize on design and build deeply integrated technologies. He has a wealth of knowledge in this. In this vertical, he was previously with Entergy and he has experience developing new products and regulated industries from startups to Fortune 500 companies. 

In addition, we have Jason Michael Perry, who is our Chief Technology Officer at Mindgrub. He is based here in Baltimore and is a seasoned technology executive and entrepreneur who provides all of our clients with technical direction. He also oversees Mindgrub’s strategic initiatives, and Jason is a veteran consultant with deep experience in utilities as well. 

Last, but not least, we have Susan Adam. She is also from New Orleans, and has over 30 years of IT experience with energy oracle strategic solutions as well as her own software consulting business. She recently retired as the product owner of Entergy’s award winning mobile app which was agile and developed with Mindgrub. We've worked with Susan for quite a long time, and it's an honor and pleasure to have her here.

Let’s get started with a few moderated questions. What were some of the themes that we saw at the conference this year? What was being discussed? What did we like and what stuck with us? 

Susan Adam
Digital transformation continues to be an important topic. Many utilities are separately addressing their channels–some with different platforms–and certainly in different priority sequences. But omni-channel parity is also being addressed, and this is to improve customer journeys across channels. There was also a focus on vulnerable customers. The numbers have been increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic, and now–even with inflation–several utilities presented what their customer outreach and technology solutions are doing to improve the customer experience for those vulnerable customers.

Jason Michael Perry
Obviously, CS Week is all about customer service, but outside of that, there are a lot of really interesting topics. I find it very interesting to hear about emerging technologies like AI, and the impact you can have in customer service, especially in call centers.
EVs continue to play a role–especially in rate differentiation–and that is also a big topic in terms of vulnerable customers. Security also popped up a few times, but I wouldn't say there was a large theme.

Andrew Dalton
I would say there were underlying themes more than overarching. You mentioned EV–the ‘sustainability’ word has been getting very important in both the utility industry, but also in large Fortune 500s, all the way down to your small startups. So I'm seeing a large underlying theme of sustainability through conversations about residential customers and commercial industrial customers, and it carries on through the various technologies that are being implemented out there, as well as partnerships. We're looking at customers differently in the utility space these days. Customers are now more partners than those who are served. So we have to help them reach different sustainability goals through various mechanisms, whether it's in the current regulatory state or future regulatory environments. That's really the sustainability piece is something that I see carrying on strong.

Rhonda Saffron
That's right, Andrew. I heard a lot of sustainability issues throughout the conference as well.
What other major issues are utilities trying to solve that you all heard about?

Susan Adam
With the vulnerable customers, there were several utilities that presented. Kristen Valardo and ACI Worldwide talked about how they helped some customers during COVID for Entergy. About 40% of Entergy customers that were having trouble last year paying their utilities, and they helped with a solution where late fees and over charges were being waived for people that qualified by answering a few questions in IVR. There were also some utilities that presented
customer outreach–actually going out and partnering with other nonprofit agencies that have the grants to fund those utilities.

In some cases, the customers also couldn't pay their rent, for their food, and other things besides the utility. And so, some of those outreach and partnership solutions were very successful, especially for CPS and San Antonio.

Puget Sound talked about some more integrated technical solutions that really helped out with that customer experience. Whether they were in their web channel or on a mobile device, using that same channel just to help apply for those grants, and easily see the status of them and get that before they were disconnected.

Jason Michael Perry
I had the chance to attend a few sessions on customer security, and I thought it was really interesting to hear utilities thinking about their role in helping to secure customers–things like phishing or smishing campaigns. That's if you're doing a SMS exploitation kind of campaign to try and grab custom information. I'm really interested in what utilities can do as they start to do more with mobile and web to prevent these types of security issues–introducing features like pass key, or looking at things like Apple business messaging or Whatsapp, that's more secure, as opposed to traditional SMS, and also different ideas for multi-factor authentication that are possible. I think there are some really interesting things there. And I think it really compliments the type of work that we do in technology with a possibility to better advocate for customers.

Andrew Dalton
Absolutely, I think customer engagement is changing right? Customers have different perspectives and expectations from businesses they work with. The utility is not special in that matter. I heard a lot of talk around, ‘How do you engage customers differently, while also maintaining or reducing those costs to serve, especially through contact centers?’ Of course, the user experience on digital channels can always be improved, but the next wave of support is coming. I got to see a really interesting emerging technology session where a man named Paul McDonald from Opower talked about ChatGPT and the role of AI in serving customers and making sure there's a smart FAQ or Q&A to engage with, but it's also the chatbot.

How does the chatbot start making decisions for the customer and be dynamic instead of just a quick response? Thinking about taking out the IVR approach and really engaging the customer in the right way. Even further, he mentioned imagining a contact center who's on the phone and the phone call is live transcript analysis. And while the Contact Center employee is talking to the customer, the system is bringing up important parts of the service that they are getting. It's explaining something to the call center agent while they're on the phone with the client so that they can quickly respond. So you can imagine customers are gonna be served more fully than ever, which will definitely increase those expectations of customers whenever they're engaging with utilities and other businesses. But it'll also make sure they're served in a smart way, so that contact centers are less burdened with the easy stuff and more burdened with the complicated stuff that we really rely on humans to make decisions on. I think about customer engagement. It is being seen as the new wave. It's no longer just the grid, it's putting the customer at the center of all decision making.

Rhonda Saffron
Yeah, I know that AI is on the horizon, especially for the customer experience. But were there any other interesting technologies and approaches that you saw at the conference?

Susan Adam
Well, the mobile app continues to be a highly preferred channel for customers, and it was interesting to see several utilities present where they are with developing that mobile app. One thing that does seem to be the common theme, though no matter what utility and where they are in their mobile app, is that at least the major customer journeys are viewing and paying my bill, looking at my real-time usage,  and then also, in the event of outages that I can see–what is the status of my power outage? When will it be back on a map, or for me to report it in that mobile channel? Also customization and segmenting, especially for C&I customers–that's growing in several discussions, especially as those C&I customers have sustainability requirements.

Andrew Dalton
Yeah, I think about the grid. Right? You're talking about some of the customer-facing elements of the grid. But also, I was geeking out about Grid X. I think Grid X is a really unique rates platform that allows rates teams, as well as analytics teams, to do design and analyze pricing strategies. They allow you to influence and empower customers through really clear information about what programs to participate in at what rates, what type of use rates, and what happens is they're seeing this more strategic partnership with these residential customers. And then there's more partnership that turns into participation, and then a more dynamic grid. So I think Grid X is really interesting. I see them continuing to grow in the space, really setting the bar for how we engage with the large amount of data that's out there, and making sure that customers are taken care of, and at the right rate.

Jason Michael Perry
So at Mindgrub, me and Todd–our CEO– like to talk about the singularity, the merging of humans and technology. Now with AI, we talk about this concept of probiotics, which is almost like a sideboard. It's humans performing tasks, but aided by robots and artificial intelligence.
We may not be there yet, but if you take a step back and you think about how that emergence happens, it's about the ability to communicate with one thing that understands you holistically, and the continuous thing that I felt, which was really interesting, is this idea of omni-channel. It's really converging the web portal, the mobile app, and the customer care center, in a way, with a chat box. You're talking to one entity, one human, one person across the board. That conversion, I think, is the biggest evolution that is going to happen in the industry. I want to be able to look at my services, such as EV services, and start a conversation in any of these different videos, but at the same time know that it understands me. I think AI is about creating that same understanding, so that if I start a conversation in the Chatbot I can finish it with the human, or I can also complete it with mobile, web or other elements, and have that holistic conversation.

Rhonda Saffron 
Absolutely. I think that all those themes and technologies, at the end of the day, are putting the customer first. Were there any themes around communications that you saw utility vendors presenting?

Susan Adam
Questline and AEP Ohio presented on customer segmentation, and it was interesting to learn that with AP, they have a choice as to where the power is generated, even though they still use the distribution and transmission regulation. They talked about customizing their content and even their timing, so they're really looking at the segmentation for those C&I customers versus what they may be communicating to the residential customers, and they talked about the interest in various industries where they focus some marketing campaigns, and especially specific newsletters that were industry-specific for their C&I customers to make sure that they were more focused on each type of industry.

Andrew Dalton
C&I customers have always been a focus of utilities, right? But it seems that there's a deeper urge to engage with those customers, and really understand what their needs are. Not as much in sessions, but just in conversations with various utility partners. I heard a lot about partnering with C&I customers, and I know I just mentioned that. These key accounts are, more than ever, not only to hit sustainability goals, but also to get data, so they can analyze it and make better business decisions and hit their business objectives.

I think we'll see an increased amount of partnership and information available to C&I customers. That's not as ad hoc. It's more active and proactive from utilities to not only help them hit sustainability targets, but also integrate new technologies and DER Technology on the grid, as well as understand how they're playing a role on the grid. Who am I as a customer on the grid? And I think it'll be important to tell that story. 

Rhonda Saffron
Absolutely a lot to take in a lot of good information. I'm curious to hear which sessions did you find the most interesting?

Susan Adam
My favorite was responding to new government mandated sustainability programs, and that was a panel of some leaders, Zeeshan Sheikh from PSE&G, Jody Allison from Liberty, and Shane Carson from ExTerra. It was really helpful to learn what each is doing to address the tactical government mandates and integrating them with their digital solutions, while also developing strategic solutions for the longer term.

Jody explained that when liberty originated nearly 35 years ago, they started out only with renewable sources for generation. They're continuing to replace fossil generation for their customers across the US, Canada, Bermuda and several other countries. But at the same time they're busy doing their digital transition. They're using IBM and SAP for both their external customer Journeys, as well as their internal needs. They explained that ExTerra uses some renewable sources, including solar and wind, and they have a goal of 0 emissions by 2045. Their digital transformation is nearly completed. They're SAP, Salesforce, Adobe, and Cisco. They have the exception that their billing engine is still legacy, and it's going to be transferred to SAP.

Zeeshan shared some of PSE&G’s goals. They're stuttering the non-nuclear and replacing it with hydro and different gas mixes, and they're determining if their pipes can handle this gas and exchange. But he also explained that government mandates aren't disruptive or aggressive from his perspective, since they depend on legislators' term limits which are somewhat short. The government's going to mandate what the customers want, and Zeeshan explained that not all of our customers are educated yet on sustainability–and most can't afford it–even if they do understand it.

So meaningful data needs to be provided by the utilities with people that can analyze that data. Who can understand it when addressing these new sustainability opportunities? All the panelists agree that the utilities industry needs a new lens to look at, to educate the customers, obtain and grow talent in their employees in order to provide these sustainability solutions in the future.

Andrew Dalton
Customers are unique, and it's not just C&I and residential customers. It's not just government customers. Every customer within those segments is unique. Kristen Valardo from Entergy had a really cool session with ACI and she told a really interesting story about Entergy designing and delivering a fast digital solution to support vulnerable customers.

What they did is they empowered customers through a little bit of information and a little IVR to find out if they could get funds, and this is in a period of time where people were struggling to pay their bill more than ever, and after they had received these funds to their system, they knew that they needed to work with someone. Then they worked with ACI to provide those funds to those participating customers as efficiently as possible. So in a matter of weeks, over 100,000 customers were able to participate in this program through using this IVR–getting the right type of communication–and then they were able to afford paying their power bill. Their power wasn't going to get shut off, and I think in some states they're going through a moratorium, but there's still that risk. Taking in the human element is so important–especially with vulnerable customer– because to Susan's point, vulnerable customers don't care about sustainability. They care about being able to pay their bill to the dollar amount. 

However, your big C&I customers aren’t so worried about getting bill credit for vulnerable customers, right? So it’s about better understanding where we need to focus and what programs to bring to who–not treating things so broadly. It's going to continue to get better and better for especially vulnerable customers, but also the C&I customers.

Jason Michael Perry
My favorite session was the panel on AI and virtual technologies. Paul Mcdonald was one of the panelists from Opower. We're doing a lot with AI here at Mindgrub, and it's in the early stage, so it's a lot of exploring that we're doing to our clients. But some of the things that he mentioned specifically with AI and Opower was the ability to to look at customers usage information and automatically detect if a customer owns the EV, and then, based on that, reach out to them with really targeted messaging to work on a way to have them use non kick hours for the charging, and having the EV, you can obviously set up, charge, and schedule some things that that adapt to that.

He also talked about some of the things that we're working with right now, which is sentiment analysis–being able to understand the expression from transcripts, and then do escalation in real time based on information someone is saying or redirect a user when they're calling in via call center transcripts, or by using a chatbot. There are some really exciting things there, and I'm starting to kind of get my brain going in terms of what's possible with the things like a data lake, or some of the information that's possible–using the information to then better understand not only what your customers’ needs are, but also how you can impact the customer usage during peak periods.

Rhonda Saffron
One final question I have: PowerUp is coming up. Do you think that these topics will continue to be hot topics, or what do you foresee us discussing there?

Susan Adam
Yes, I definitely think these topics will continue to be important, and most especially how to prepare for outages, since PowerUp will be right after the first few weeks of storm season– whether it's hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or fires. I always love that the utilities share with each other, and with the vendor solutions that are being provided during these sessions. 

One thing I do think is that the native map that Mindgrub provided has been something to share. It's nice to see that a lot of utilities are still doing a web map, but to be able to say that Mindgrub could provide a native map that helps fit better and position better, using a little bit of intelligence about your account is really helpful in these added sessions. We love that native map.

Jason Michael Perry
I'm a fan. I think it's still converging–they really get the ability to take advantage of AI and some of the things that we're seeing, I feel like a lot of utilities are are hearing the importance of that omni-channel structure that they need to move to and have that conversion about the middleware, the APIs, and the technology as powering your web, your mobile, and your customer center in your call center. If those things aren't connected, it's going to make it a lot harder for you to really embed AI in the core aspect of these different communication mechanisms, so they can really share and understand, and personalize the user experience. So for those clients or those utility companies that have gone off and built multiple technology stacks, they're finding it a lot tougher to compete and a lot tougher to create the experience that they want. That's more holistic. I'm hoping that we see a lot more of that at PowerUp and more conversations around not only AI and embedded technologies in impact and customer service, but what a real omni-channel environment looks like in terms of customer satisfaction and success.

Andrew Dalton
That's customer-specific. There's data everywhere in the utility space. Some utility clients of ours have 1,500 active applications in their IT infrastructure, which means there's data going everywhere. So we've had this theme in the utility space, but really in all industries of harnessing that data–really understanding what it is, where it needs to go, where it needs to live. 

Now it's time to analyze that data, and we are at a perfect time with AI to go in and analyze it in the most efficient and effective way. So I think you'll see us modernizing our data pools as well as modernizing our pipelines of data to really be able to harness not only what's going on in the customer side, but also what's going on in the back end. What's happening with technology? What's happening on the grid? And how is everything influencing one another? So what are the human interactions that are happening with technology or the technology interactions that are happening with the grid that are influencing other things? Similar to how we support a lot of clients through not only upgrading our tech stacks, but also expanding or minimizing tech stack,  I think you're gonna see a lot of vendors telling the same story–talking about AI. It's going to be not only a buzzword, but it's going to start coming into reality. AI is not the most expensive thing anymore. Data is not the most expensive thing anymore, because it's here, and it's present from a customer perspective. We're gonna see a lot more self-serve, customers' needs are going to get more complicated. But at the same time the easy stuff, we’ll start, stop, or move. 

It won't be a fully long process. You'll be able to start or stop or move in a heartbeat, so I think a more self-serve, more programmatic approach to offerings and getting those out there through omni-channel offering or through omni-channel digital channels, as well as just making sure customers get what they need. They are really putting the customer at the center, and a lot of utilities are also using human-centered design to make decisions for service design, but also digital applications. And I think vendors are going to be talking about that, too. 

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