Pacific Gas & Electric Powers Calls Naturally With Speech

Gas and electric utility companies around the world help power almost every facet of our lives.  According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 1949 to 2003, energy production has increased from 31.722 quadrillion Btu to 70.474 quadrillion Btu1. As far as electricity itself is concerned, U.S. production reached 3,883,185 kilowatt hours and U.S. electric utility production had a net generation of 2,462,281 kilowatt hours for 20031.  With a total of 134,449,8251 U.S. customers, utility companies play a huge role in our daily lives and must have open lines of communication for their customers to access 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

Table 1:  Number of Electricity Customers in the U.S.1
 Total  134,449,825
 Residential  117,092,348
 Commerical  16,636,448
 Industrial  719,748
 Transportation  1,281

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) services 8.8 million customers throughout a 70,000 square-mile area in Northern and Central California. They are one of the largest combination gas and electric utilities companies in the U.S. They are based in San Francisco. Regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for cost and customer satisfaction, PG&E has three call centers in California (San Jose, Sacramento, and Fresno). 

Before implementing speech recognition, PG&E received approximately 14 million calls per year with 650 agents and 792 IVR ports to handle the calls.  The dual tone multi-frequency (DTMF or touchtone) self-service application was implemented in 1994 on Nortel Networks' IVR System.  The functionality provided by the DTMF included:

  • Billing functions - Obtain account balance and last payment status; Report outages; Make payment arrangements; Create a budget payment plan
  • Services - Schedule gas appliance appointments; Obtain rate information
  • Outage functions - Get outage status information; Report outages; Request outage status call backs or wakeup call back
  • Special programs - Financial programs information for low income; Pay by phone information
  • Out-dial application - Outage restoration and status change; message drop; appointment confirmation; Bad Dog (calls to customers whose accounts are noted as having a bad dog, used by meter readers to alert them to possible problems); and wakeup calls

PG&E's goals were to improve the IVR take rate and customer satisfaction.  Improving the IVR take rate would help with call handling costs since an IVR assisted call is about 50-70 cents versus an agent-assisted call, which ranges from $4 to $10 each.  Simple transactions, such as Start and Stop service, were not automated because the service requires the capture of the caller's home address.  PG&E receives approximately 660,000 stop service calls per year with an average call handling cost of about $5 per call with zero automation. PG&E also conducts monthly Quality Service Evaluation (QSE+) surveys to measure customer satisfaction, which are tabulated on a quarterly basis. Through these results, they saw a need to increase customer satisfaction with the IVR system and improve first call resolution success rate. 

Figure 1: Average cost of electric power per year, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Having heard about speech from various mediums, such as magazines, trade shows, seminars, books and user groups, PG&E chose natural language - a natural means of communication - to offer more IVR customer service options to their customers.  Speech enabled PG&E to improve caller take rates by four to six percent, improve customer satisfaction rates by two to four percent (in top two ratings of overall satisfaction score based on IVR QSE+), and improve first call resolution by two to four percent (based on IVR QSE+). See Figure 2.

Figure 2: PG&E QSE+ survey reports show customer satisfaction results.  Percentages are for "Very Good" or "Excellent" ratings only.

Providing the speech services, Nortel and ScanSoft developed the voice user interface using the Nortel MPS Platform with speech recognition and text-to-speech servers.  Walsh Media was selected as the voice.  Before fully deploying each phase, PG&E performed extensive integration testing with all their connected systems, such as their Customer Information System, Outage Information System, Field Automation System, and Enterprise Architecture.  Prior to releasing, the internal Enterprise Test Team completed unit and functional testing.  The test team completed hundreds of test scenarios, which included completing a specific function successfully; tests of error handling, business rules, transfer routines, system management and load testing.  The IVR support team is able to generate standard reports that list the functional take rates generated from the call logs and flags multiple calls from a single caller to determine problematic call completion areas. These reports are accessed through PG&E's Intranet or through database reports.  All coding/programming changes are outsourced to Nortel.

Nortel also ran usability studies to determine problem areas that customers encountered in the system, which provided PG&E with tuning recommendations. As the first in a two-cycle tuning program, Nortel provided PG&E with a pilot program to roll out initially to customers.  During the pilot program, Nortel recorded the customer utterances as they interacted with the speech recognition system.  Nortel then transcribed incomplete or error ridden calls for review.  The results generated over 200 changes, but the biggest improvements came in the grammar, reporting and user interface areas. PG&E also contracted Empirix to load test the system before rolling into full production as well as to gather data from focus groups with customers - live and Internet based.  According to Kent Barnes, program manager for PG&E, the grammar recommendations called for the addition of words and phrases most used by callers during the pilot program, such as:

  • Directed Menu (State 1040): This initial directed-dialog menu state (that all callers enter since it is at the beginning of all English calls) accounted for 22.1 percent (25,363) of all logged Dialogue Modules (DM) executions.
    • Grammar Recommendation:  Expand PGBillingMenu grammar by adding the synonym "other" for "other payment options." As mentioned above for Directed Menu, expand synonyms for "agent" in the universal grammar to include "customer service."
  • Service Menu (State 5000): This state accounted for 4.0 percent (4539) of all DM executions.
    • Grammar Recommendation:  Expand PGSvcMenu grammar by adding the synonym "service appointment" for the "schedule" option, and the synonym "pilot light" for the "pilot" option.   Also, add the options given in the new UI Prompt Recommendation including adding the synonym "make an appointment" for the "schedule" option.

From these grammar recommendations, PG&E also added the address recognition software to capture billing addresses for the Start/Stop services.  The addition of the reporting function allows PG&E to capture call log information between the DTMF system and the speech recognition system.  User interface changes were made to the prompts, including shortening the initial prompts, for example:

  • ORIGINAL INITIAL PROMPT:  "Are you calling to 'start, stop or transfer service,' to 'schedule a service appointment,' 'schedule a seasonal pilot light,' or 'check on rates'?  You can also say 'none of those.'"
  • PROPOSED INITIAL PROMPT:  "Please say 'start, stop or transfer service,' 'make an appointment,' 'seasonal pilot light' or say 'none of those."' [Note that we have eliminated the low-runner 'rates' option.]

Overall, there were 14 grammar recommendations and four user interface recommendations with hundreds of minor adjustments to improve the customer experience.

Since full deployment of the system on October 8, 2004, PG&E has seen a three to nine percent increase in call completion in the IVR.  A one percent improvement is the equivalent of about 500 calls per day, so they have seen a take rate of 1500 - 4000 calls per day. The system now handles approximately 50,000 calls per day with an improved IVR take.    While IVR QSE+ reports from fourth quarter of 2004 indicate slightly lower caller satisfaction in comparison to the third quarter results for 2004, the Q4 call completion rates were comparable to Q1 and Q2 findings for the same year - as illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3: PG&E call completion rates in IVR for 2004.

PG&E successfully met all of their objectives with the implementation of speech into their IVR system.  With the rollout of Start & Stop service functionality on March 24, 2005, PG&E looks to add functionality by expanding the system functions with customer field orders, such as providing tracking numbers for field orders and outages; building upon interfaces with Customer Service Online to pull information from the Web page for customers through the IVR; expanding the MPS platform for outcalls and Spanish; and rewriting the application from proprietary to VoiceXML. Start & Stop services account for 10-15 percent of the call volume on any given day. For this reason, the second tuning cycle, which began on May 1, 2005, focused primarily on the Start & Stop functionality monitoring the customer experience with these transactions.  Planning for these changes is ongoing and PG&E expects to implement many of them by third quarter of 2005.  They will continue to do call analysis and tuning to improve customer take rates as well as satisfaction.

1Schnapp, Robert. (2004, December 10) Energy Information Administration (EIA) [Online]. Retrieved April 13, 2005 from the World Wide Web: http://www.eia.doe.gov/neic/quickfacts/quickelectric.htm

*Special thanks to Kent Barnes, project manager at Pacific Gas & Electric, for all of his help in coordinating this article.

Stephanie Owens is the associate editor for Speech Technology Magazine. She can be reached at stephanie@amcommpublications.com .

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