Where do you think the biggest opportunities lie for companies looking to use emerging technologies to differentiate themselves?
The biggest opportunities are around AI and we’re seeing a lot of interest from water companies in particular around the use of chatbots.
Welsh Water recently launched a chatbot on Facebook which encouraged people to talk to them and give their views on what they felt the company should be investing in over the next five years. It was innovative and different, causing a spike in uptake and engagement.
We're currently working on a chatbot for a utility company which will allow their customers to check on current incidents, report any new incidents, and get answers to frequently asked questions. This will be launched through Facebook initially.
When a person interacts with the company via Facebook, the company has been using live agents to reply to those messages, which is a fairly expensive resource. There's a huge opportunity now for them to respond to their customers much faster, on a 24/7 basis, answering common questions or handling common use cases like checking for current incidents.
Over time the plan is to roll this out as part of live chat on the company’s website, effectively using AI technology to triage those requests. The technology enables companies to respond to as many users as possible, in a small amount of time, while ensuring the experience remains really engaging.
We're not reducing the customer experience, we're actually responding to them faster, and in a natural way that's in context for them.
Customers are able to actually engage with companies within the apps they're using all of the time, like Facebook Messenger. Or when it comes to live chat, it may be about getting an answer to a question without needing to wait in a queue for an agent to become available.
Chatbots aren’t a new concept. How have they grown more sophisticated?
The technology has improved drastically over the last 12 to 18 months, particularly with natural language processing. It means 100 different customers can come to a chatbot and say something in 100 different ways, but the technology will still understand what they're trying to achieve. And they're becoming far more conversational.
This has been a watershed moment for me. We’re in a position now where these chatbots can gradually learn to get much more sophisticated in their understanding.
At Mando, we are huge advocates of putting the technology aside to start with. Instead we think about what the ideal customer experience would be, and identify the best way for the user to complete their particular task.
After this we'll design that conversation from the ground up, looking at where the technology can solve those challenges, and where it can’t.
It’s about utilising the technology at the right time, in the right place, and then onboarding the user to other channels where necessary. When it comes to conversational design, your primary driver needs to be the customer experience.
How else can natural language understanding be used in enabling the customer experience?
There is a huge opportunity for utilities companies to look at where other AI technologies can integrate with existing channels, such as their website.
We have just launched Intelligent Search for United Utilities. This means that when a user carries out a search on their website, it can use natural language understanding to interrupt the user's search experience and get them to where they need to go faster.
For example, United Utilities customers might search for their postcode to find out about current incidents in their area. As you'd expect, this search term would have failed to retrieve relevant results, yet intelligent search will understand the customer’s intent and deliver on that.
On the United Utilities site, we are now able to take the user’s search phrase and query that against our natural language understanding service.
You can build on this over time, so it’s completely content manageable. For example, imagine there was a particularly large incident, prompting lots of people to search for ‘My water is not working in Liverpool’. Unless United Utilities have a page on their website for every region they cover, the search results won’t necessarily point customers in the right direction.
Using Intelligent Search, we can now take all of those phrases and train our services to understand that all of these people are looking for answers to the same question. It would interrupt these users when they search, recognise the issue and provide them with the relevant information.
What are the biggest challenges in leveraging emerging technologies such as AI?
One of the biggest challenges is simply knowing what is possible. This is exacerbated by the difficulty in understanding different technologies.
Everyone will have a different idea of what AI is, and the speed of which the technology is improving can make it difficult to keep up and decide what's possible. It can be a big help having a partner who is on top of the latest technologies, and able to do the legwork to understand what is valuable in particular industries.
Many companies are reluctant to be the first to adopt a technology too, particularly in a regulated industry. They look for others to demonstrate value first.
I think this is going to change, especially with the emergence of PR19. One of PR19’s key areas of focus is innovation and elevating the customer experience. This demand will drive companies to show a gradual willingness to try new technologies.
As touch points increase, how important is digital in giving utilities companies that single customer view?
It’s massively important. Every time we have a touch point with a customer, whether that's online or offline, we want to capture as much of that information as possible. This is all about understanding how those customers are working, and their current situation.
One of the challenges facing utilities companies is the fact that, so often, the only time a customer gets in touch with them is to pay their bill or when they've got a problem.
If we can make that whole process easier for them, encouraging them to engage with the company in a digital way and make that a positive experience, maybe we can encourage customer participation - as Ofwat expect in this price review.
This means that when somebody comes online and converses with the chatbot in Facebook, or in web chat, we can take that conversation history and data, and feed that into a single customer profile. This could include tracking their sentiment too, such as the level of customer satisfaction.
Having all of this information, and knowing what they’ve said to the chatbot, gives us what we need to personalise the experience they have when they hit the website. It allows companies to personalise the customer journey across multiple channels.
Companies who aren't looking into how they can utilise this technology now are going to be left playing catch up. I think there's a great opportunity to really lead the space and blaze a brand new trail in the utilities customer experience.
Does the Internet of Things (IoT) present any opportunities to utility companies?
It can be useful having some sort of internet-enabled technology, which streams meter information to companies instead of customers having to manually read them. For instance, businesses could use the data to provide more proactive recommendations to customers if their water usage significantly spikes. It may also highlight patterns across customer segments, whether that's by location or by a specific type of customer.
This data will enable utilities companies to add value, making customers’ bills more affordable and manageable, and promoting trust.
Smart meters will also facilitate the entry of utilities companies into the connected home market, contributing to the long term resilience of the organisation.
It’s early days, but all of these things will play a part in transforming the customer experience.