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How to simplify customer experience in the utilities sector: part 1

Even without running the numbers or reading copious market reports, it's apparent that companies like Virgin, Apple, Airbnb and Uber have grown their value by the way they put customers at the heart of their business and wrap services around them. These brands have become synonymous with great customer experiences and are recognised as leaders in how to engage and influence online.

This creates a real challenge as customers set the bar for online interactions increasingly high, and companies, especially utility companies, are left further behind. The clue is even in the name - one definition of the word "utility" is "designed chiefly for use or service rather than beauty, high quality, or the like" - so it's unsurprising that this spills over into the perception customers can have. Practical but dull could almost be seen as an aspiration in some parts of this sector.

Being literally seen as utilitarian, but being held to the same online standards of a superbrand are the twin curses utility companies have to bear. However, there is a positive side to this dynamic, and that is the power of simplicity.

As our lives get busier, a good customer experience is increasingly challenging to achieve. While many of our customers spend their personal lives on time-wasting apps, they need their interactions with businesses to be time-saving. Remember the first time you completed your road tax application on the updated GOV.UK site? I do… Having steeled myself for pain and struggle, the ease of completing the process created a genuine moment of joy as I realised I'd got an hour of my life back. The power for this utilitarian site wasn't to engage and create a "sticky" experience. It was to create the most "slippy" experience possible, allowing people to fulfill a functional need, leave, and get on with what matters to them. Perversely, this "disengagement" strategy has created real brand value for functional sites that seek to empower customers in this way. Customers choose to give their business and their loyalty to those that deliver simple and efficient customer experience. Conversely, they resent those that block our productivity, seem unintelligent or just feel like hard work.

While exhibiting at Utility Week Live 2017, we asked visitors to identify one process within their business that they would change to simplify the lives of their customers. Not only was this valuable insight for us, to see how we could support utility companies, but it was clearly eye-opening for many submitting their ideas to realise how complex their customer experience processes currently were. Within utilities especially, complexity becomes the experience killer and must be eliminated at all costs.

One area where reducing complexity can give clear ROI is customer contacts. From our long history working alongside various utility and telecom companies we know that call centres play a huge role in the customer experience; getting the balance right between wanted and unwanted calls is critical, not just from a regulatory and financial perspective, but in terms of operational effectiveness and impact on customer satisfaction. That's why we keep a close eye on any technology or development that provides opportunities to simplify the contact process, enable self-service, speed up the interaction process or shift willing customers to more suitable channels. In this mix, chatbots are finally coming of age after a variety of false starts as virtual support assistants. Why? Well, fundamentally two factors are driving this: the rise of messaging and conversational interfaces as a cross-demographic platform, and the rapid improvements in the capability of AI to provide meaningful intelligence to digital experiences. I won't go into more detail on these here but look out for a follow up podcast covering these soon!

Photograph of Jonathan Seal speaking at Utility Week Live

In a recent survey of 1,000 consumers, 46% cited bots as the key-holders to speed, immediacy and convenience - highlighting their potential to meet customer experience expectations. Within the utilities sector, this presents a huge opportunity to deliver simplicity; in everything from customer support, reporting a leak and frequently asked questions but also by creating proactive customer touchpoints and updates that often frees the customer from having to do anything.

For my talk at Utility Week Live we were in a silent theatre, with all attendees wearing headsets to help with the audio in the busy and noisy venue hall. I joked that I was talking to a room of cyborgs, as we were all using technology to augment ourselves, but the reality is this is absolutely true. And in the same way we use our smart phones as digital extensions of ourselves to outsource memory and direction sense, businesses can use AI powered chatbots as digital extensions of their customer call centres, handling the high volume and low complexity issues and - if necessary - handing over to a person (e.g. if a threshold confidence isn't reached or the sentiment suggests growing frustration, or of course the customer just asks to!). This mindset of augmenting existing customer support seems to me a good way to approach chatbots, rather than viewing them as a separate channel in a similar way to a web form or other 'channel diversion' tactic.

One aspect of all this that fascinates me is how we create compelling bot experiences in a way that supports the business needs and expresses brands honestly and authentically. Often when shiny new technology bumps against real customers interacting in unpredictable and messy ways it's the technology that comes off worst. So our focus is as much on the human side of AI as the technology, working to understand the way that people engage with chat technology in order to better train and improve the AI that runs it.

As a final note on the business simplification challenge we set at Utility Week Live, it was sobering to see how many challenges across a range of businesses have similarities, particularly related to customer data and how you use this to deliver customer experience. Over the coming weeks, we'll be taking some of those challenges, looking at how artificial intelligence might help deliver simplicity to your customers, and posting our thoughts for you to feedback on.

Thanks again for getting involved.