Rick Pugh

Rick Pugh

Director of Consulting Services

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Digital customer engagement is transforming the utility-customer relationship

Dear utilities executive: pop quiz, three questions. No peeking. Who’s your Director of Digital Customer Service? Do you have an integrated, digital customer engagement strategy? If you answered yes, what is it?

If you correctly answered all three, you’re probably ahead of many of your industry peers. But that’s no reason to rest on your laurels. There is a customer-led revolution happening, and if you’re not a partner in this transformation, you could be left behind.

The old ways of thinking

Some of you may be a bit young to remember the mockumercial slogan, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.” But forty-some years ago, Lily Tomlin’s masterful bit of satire perfectly summed up how people thought their heavily-regulated phone service provider viewed them. And to some degree, they weren’t wrong. Fast forward to today, and the choices consumers have for their telecommunications experience (carriers, devices, apps, data, etc.) are almost limitless. Are utilities far behind?

Engaging with customers was not a priority for utilities in the past because the risk of losing them was low. However, a growing number of progressive utility leaders have a vision of industry transformation and are embracing a more innovative and human-centered approach to the people they serve.

A new reality spurs innovation

So what’s driving this innovative approach within utilities? Simply put: times have changed.

The customers you used to know from your time in the trenches (literally and figuratively) are aging, and there’s a new, dramatically different generation of customers right on their heels.  The most dramatic difference is how they use, consume and adopt technology.  This makes it so much harder to “know your customers” and adequately meet (much less exceed) their increasingly diverse expectations.

This innovative and human-centered approach, though, extends beyond just the relationship with your customers but also to your workforce and even your communities. You’ve gone green to protect the environment. You’ve changed processes and systems to increase safety and security.  Just as you’ve worked hard on these endeavors in building your relationship with your customers, workforce and community, you can do even more by improving your customer services and engagement.

Utility Innovation: Integrated, digital customer engagement through human-centered design

Progressive utilities are getting closer to their customers and developing an integrated, digital customer engagement strategy based on human-centered design.  This may sound a bit esoteric or touchy-feely, but it’s not, and it can be expressed in a few key principles:

  1. Customers as humans. Put the human perspective at the center of all of your problem-solving and process development activities.  The system, technology or process should never drive development.  This is the basis of human-centered design. By doing this, you only build what your customer needs, and don’t spend time or resources on things that are not important to the customer.  (Same goes for your workforce too).
  2. One size does not fit all. Each customer should be associated with a human persona with a name that is representative in all of your business processes and use cases. Customer is a general term to mean an end customer, employee, other businesses partner, and even another department within your organization. 
  3. Seamless 360 strategy. You can’t have separate vertical customer service strategies (or channels) and expect efficient, effective or even consistent customer service. What happens in your call center is a direct result of what you’re not doing on your website. Most importantly, being a digital organization goes beyond having a website with some online customer services. Your customer service strategy should take a 360 degree view and include phone, web, social media, email, and text/SMS, as well as take advantage of constantly emerging technologies.

Getting Started

Getting started with an integrated, digital customer service strategy isn’t a herculean task. In fact, it really takes just three things to get the ball rolling.

First, and most importantly, recognize the need for change and commit to it. It’s not unusual to get the team in the room and say, “We need to do this…” and get a response like, “We’re already doing it.” In my years of consulting experience, getting teams on the same page takes alignment of goals, expected outcomes, and success metrics. In most cases, if you’re doing these activities in isolation, you are not realizing the full benefits of efficiency and effectiveness. 

Second, focus on substance over style. Don’t fall in love with a shiny new object (technology), only to lose sight of your end goal (service). 

Third, innovation requires collaboration.   Involve the right stakeholders with the right expertise and mindset, both inside and outside your company, to help you. Many human-centered design activities are highly specialized and are as much an art form as a science. Having access to experience and expertise can pay off in spades. Here’s a series of questions to help you identify the right stakeholders and partners to support your success:

  1. Do they have experience in the utility industry?
  2. Can they support your program from a 360 degree perspective?  Specifically:
    1. Do they have a human-centered design practice
    2. Do they specialize in user experience and content architecture
    3. Do they have a proven track record with process improvement, robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)?
    4. Can they produce creative content?
    5. Can they support you technically across all channels including utility CIS, call center, IVR, web, social, mobile, AI and ML, without having to bring in multiple vendors?
    6. Can they partner in developing a holistic strategy that is not only futuristic but achievable, and provide the technical delivery expertise to ensure you stay on schedule and budget?
  3. Will they stick with you until the end and share in your success or will they simply “dump and run” at the first twist in the road.

“We do care. We have to.” is the right approach to customer engagement. The good news is human-centered design is a great way to make it a reality.

Read more about what utility customers want in CGI’s new report: The Customer Push or Pull: How Much Are Customers Driving Digital Change For Utilities?

Download 'Customer Push or Pull'


About this author

Rick Pugh

Rick Pugh

Director of Consulting Services

As Director of Consulting Services for the Los Angeles Metro, Rick Pugh specializes in helping his clients finds ways to use technology and process improvement to engage with his customers in a more efficient and compelling manner. Rick has over 20 years of domain experience ...