Utilities have long viewed their customers as “ratepayers,” people who pay a fee for an essential service.
But as other industries have improved and broadened their customer connections — retail, banking and travel — utilities are experiencing a wake-up call to provide faster, simpler and more-personalized communications to their customers.
The emphasis used to be on internal operations, but utilities are quickly realizing that expectations have changed to provide an effortless customer experience. In response, utilities are investing in new, customer-facing technologies — smart metering, connected home and other efficiency tools. With technology rapidly advancing, utilities need to continue to communicate the associated value created by these new advancements. This can include faster customer service and lower rates due to automation.

When customer satisfaction scores slipped, GWP took an outside-in approach.

Glendale Water and Power (GWP) is a municipal utility that serves just under 100,000 customers in California. GWP deployed advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology in 2011 throughout its service territory with the following goals: reduce day-to-day operating costs, improve electric service reliability and power quality, reduce costs from equipment failures and distribution line losses, and curb the environmental impact of greenhouse gases.

In recent years, GWP noticed customer satisfaction scores trending lower. With an inclination to directly attribute this to the rate increases occurring, GWP engaged third-party consulting services to obtain an objective, “outside-in” perspective to identify efficiencies in their customer service department and ultimately, the root cause for their lower customer satisfaction scores. With prior focus being more concentrated on internal operations and less on leading edge customer experience initiatives, GWP hoped to obtain a holistic perspective from this assessment and identify how existing and new technologies could be leveraged to improve operations in a manner that positively impacts customer service, while lowering future rate increases. GWP’s ultimate goal was to develop a results-based organization with clear accountability to improve and sustain their reputable level of customer service. With clear accountability and key performance metrics, the utility could proactively manage and adjust internal operations as needed, before customers experience a decline in service.

Identifying specific areas of pain across an organization required depth and breadth.

West Monroe Partners, a business and technology consulting firm with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, assisted GWP in completing an all-encompassing assessment of its customer services operations. It included a review of its contact and payment center operations, billing services, field services and administrative services. West Monroe’s approach was simple, yet effective: to assess all groups within GWP’s customer services operations through the business lenses of people, process, technology and strategy. The goal was to identify and remediate pain points, and to provide GWP with a way to sustain efficient operations by increasing functional accountabilities and enhancing existing business processes.

West Monroe leveraged proprietary tools and frameworks to complete this assessment. It applied a comprehensive list of customer service-related benchmarks for GWP to quantify their maturity against peer utilities, as well as competitive industries.

Figure 1 shows a sample list of benchmarks utilized in the assessment. They identified areas in GWP’s customer services operations where a deeper dive was warranted to understand more detail related to the root cause of the lower scores and to develop an improvement plan.

An organizational assessment was also completed through interviews with GWP personnel. This included a review of the existing organizational structure/job descriptions to pinpoint employees’ self-identified issues as well as any organizational design issues. These conversations, in conjunction with the performance gaps previously identified, offered West Monroe a holistic view of GWP’s current operational environment. West Monroe then tailored a GWP-specific maturity model to assess specific areas for improvement.

In Figure 2, West Monroe’s detailed maturity model assessed GWP across four levels: developing, foundational, advanced and optimized. GWP’s current state for each category was evaluated based on West Monroe’s knowledge of industry standards. GWP’s future-state vision was then built through workshops involving employees from all customer services groups. For example, West Monroe identified reporting and analytics tools lacking at GWP, which resulted in a significant amount of time spent manually extracting report data. GWP identified this as a key area to address. Collaboration during this process was crucial in GWP’s success, as they were able to identify areas of highest concern and prioritization to determine a realistic vision of what’s feasible to accomplish going forward.

Finally, results from the maturity model enabled West Monroe to identify practical and impactful improvement opportunities for specific customer-facing processes such as billing, contact center and payment counter operations. West Monroe conducted a deeper study of these specific processes by mapping out step-by-step activities, interdependencies and technology enablers. In collaboration with GWP employees, West Monroe identified redundant or inefficient steps that proved to be the most time-intensive, and that had a corresponding negative impact on the customer experience (e.g., wait times, response times and other delays). With meter-tocash and back-office applications expertise, West Monroe identified specific steps to automate many of GWP’s current business processes, which traditionally have had a bias toward more manual activities.

Read the rest of the article in Western Energy.