Utilities have traditionally lagged behind other industries in customer service. Though utilities have made notable improvements in the call center and back office functions, field-level customer service has not achieved the same gains. Providing the same near real-time, up-to-date information to field crews, customer service professionals and customers remains an elusive challenge for many utilities.

For example, a customer may call the contact center and ask a simple question: “Why is there a utility truck in my alley?” Unfortunately, the lack of near real-time integration between the systems that support utility field work and those that support customer service operations prevent many utilities from answering that question. This leads to a poor customer service experience for the consumer.

To protect the bottom line and remain relevant with consumers, utilities need to turn their attention to improving customer experiences associated with the delivery of services in the field.

Field Service-Level Customer Experience

Utilities suffer from a gap in perceptions about the customer experience

Capgemini research on customer experience reveals that 79 percent of utilities believe they are customer-centric, but only seven percent of consumers share that view. Part of the reason for this gap is that utilities have failed to apply a customer focus to the field-level interactions that represent the front line of utilities relationships with consumers.

When customers interact with a utility field crews in their neighborhoods, businesses and homes, they expect the same responsive and multichannel experience as the ones they experience when they interact with a customer service agent.

Too often, outbound field messaging is through limited interaction: door hangers, bill stuffers or outbound IVR calls. Some leading utilities are using smart phone applications to communicate notices about field level work; however, even those fall short of what is experienced in other industries. Utilities should strive to provide proactive, and near real-time status updates across multiple channels and devices for all work that will be visible to a customer. If an airline can tell a customer where their bag is at any time, why can’t a utility provide similar information for the status of a service upgrade or issue remediation?

But instead of empowering customers with real-time information that can be accessed across a range of mobile and digital channels, utilities’ technology limitations force them to provide customers with unreasonably wide service windows, vague status updates and a general lack of information. Said differently, utilities provide information that consumers can’t readily act upon, thereby not answering that, which to the consumer, is a very simple question.

Why utilities need to improve field-level customer service

Utilities have clear incentives to target field-service level customer engagement. Self-service has already delivered operational efficiencies through call deflection, and digitally-led engagement has become the defining factor in a utility’s drive to engage the millennial generation.

Digital and mobile technologies will become even more important over the next five years as demand management, dynamic pricing and distributed energy gain traction with consumers. Elevated field-level engagement around customer-sited devices, localized circuit conditions, and protection of field crews and public from two-way power flows will command premiums. The quality of the digitally intelligent experiences utilities offer will no longer be distinguished between centrally-driven and field-delivered service – the utility brand has to be “all-in” on a customer’s experience offer.

It’s also worth noting that customer satisfaction plays an important role in rate case determinations. A recent study by J.D. Power showed a 0.5 percent increase in ROE among utilities in the top quartile of customer satisfaction one year prior to a rate case, compared to utilities landing in the bottom quartile of customer satisfaction.

Many utility companies are learning the hard way that the path to rate adjustments becomes significantly bumpier if the utility reports low customer satisfaction scores. By focusing on customer satisfaction as a whole, but particularly in field-level service, utilities can accommodate regulators’ desire to factor customer sentiments into their decision-making.

Enhanced field-level service begins with a better technology strategy

To improve safety, efficiency, customer satisfaction and bottom line performance, utilities need to bridge the information and timing gaps between the call center and customer service systems, and the systems that manage work, scheduling, and assets. In many cases, this will involve the intelligent use of technologies that can deliver a sophisticated range of real-time integrations and capabilities to customers.

This level of service has become commonplace in other complex industries. Now it’s time for utilities to make the transition to a field-level service strategy that puts customer experience at the forefront. But there are several things utilities need to do to prepare for the change:

Improved Situational Awareness and Digital Self-Serve Capabilities—Utilities need to prioritize strategies that enhance situational awareness and digital self-serve capabilities for field-level service activities. In many ways, utility companies’ relationships with customers will hinge on the ability to deliver timely information and services via mobile and other channels.

Seamless Data Exchange—To improve the flow of information and improve access to service-related activities, utilities must enable seamless, real-time data exchange between customers, employees (including field crews) and customer service professionals. Part of this process will require the implementation of a robust enterprise service bus (ESB) to provide faster, reliable exchange of information between systems.

Better Governance Around Decision Making—It’s often difficult for utility companies to identify the system of record. Information is frequently propagated to multiple systems, creating potential errors and other issues that impede the seamless flow of information across the organization. To lay the groundwork for improved customer experiences in field-level service, utilities should reduce the influence of silos by creating clear governance around decision-making.

Create a Bias for Action and Accomplishment—With improved governance and technology integrations, utilities need to efficiently mobilize internal and external resources to develop and execute a multi-staged plan to achieve meaningful improvements related to the provisioning of field service activities. It will be a continuous process, not a single event.

The push for better field-level customer experiences can’t be a backburner initiative. With the utilities sector poised to change significantly over the next few years, the window for utilities to develop and implement field-relevant customer impact strategies is relatively small. By launching initiatives now, utility companies can create more meaningful impressions with every touch, improve bottom line business performance, and create a user experience that matches, and hopefully exceeds, the experience that consumers have come to expect when interacting with companies in their day-to day lives.

This piece was co-authored with Robert Robinson, a Client Partner in Capgemini’s utilities practice and Fred Basedow, a principal in the practice, and first appeared on Energy Central.com