• July 31, 2014
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

IVR Continues to Spark Interest in Utilities

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Across the utilities industry, several factors are making customer service a strategic priority. These include increased competition as a result of government deregulation, new technologies, rising customer expectations, and the need to support more sophisticated customer interactions.

In response, utilities continue to expand their use of interactive voice response (IVR) technology due to the cost, efficiency, and customer care benefits.

In fact, Chartwell, an Atlanta-based specialized information provider that helps utilities improve their customer experiences, has noted that 95 percent of utilities are currently using an IVR system. That's up from about 90 percent in 2012 and an increase of more than 30 percent in the last decade.

The four most commonly offered IVR functions, according to Chartwell's most recent IVR and Speech Recognition Survey, are checking account balances, reporting outages and receiving updates, paying bills, and requesting payment arrangements.

But some utilities are using the technology for a lot more than that. TXU Energy, a Dallas-based electricity provider, replaced its touchtone-based IVR with a system from Interactions to facilitate the automation of 17 self-service transactions, including making payments, moving service, lining up credit extensions, establishing recurring payments, reporting outages, and checking on service status. The company is looking to add even more services to the IVR, which handles roughly 10 million calls per year. The system can even dynamically switch to another language if the caller starts speaking in a language other than English.

Flint Energies, an electric cooperative in Georgia, offers its members self-service access to a bill analysis application from Apogee Interactive. Apogee's BillingInsights provides an automated explanation of customer bills, letting customers know why their bills might have changed from month to month or year to year.

When a member calls into the IVR with a bill inquiry, the IVR reads back the amount due and asks the caller if he wants to know why the bill amount might have changed. If the customer selects that option, the IVR hands off the account information to Apogee, which looks up the environmental conditions from a month ago or a year ago for where the caller lives. It provides a page of text back to the IVR, which then reads back the information to the caller using text-to-speech technology.

The application went live in July 2012. Within the first month, Flint Energies had 134 callers ask to hear why their bills were different.

IVR containment is also on the rise within the utility sector, according to Chartwell's research. The industry average for IVR containment rose from 29 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2013.

Sarah Welty, a research analyst at Chartwell, notes that customer satisfaction with IVRs is also trending upward in the utility sector.

At TXU Energy, the IVR has led to a customer satisfaction increase of 11 percent and an 18 percent increase in call containment.

For other utilities to increase their containment and satisfaction rates, Welty says, they need to make sure that their IVRs "are fully self-service solutions rather than just a route to a customer service representative. They need to have more self-service tasks rather than more menu options that route to an agent," she states.

Experts suggest that other uses can be applied to both inbound and outbound IVR transactions. On the inbound side, utilities can enable their IVRs to handle field support uses, allowing field technicians to call into automated systems to report on their work progress or provide service updates. The same system could be used to provide messages during an outage, letting callers know that the outage is being addressed and providing an estimated repair completion time.

On the outbound side, the IVR can be used to automatically survey customers by phone following interactions with support personnel, after new services have been installed, or after repairs have been completed. Utilities can also leverage their IVRs to send automated dispatch calls to workers in the field and streamline appointment scheduling. Aside from service outages, outbound notifications can be used to provide customers with targeted updates on usage restrictions, rate changes, new money-saving programs, and other important information.

Along with that, Welty says that there are many industry-specific issues that need to be considered when installing and upgrading an IVR in the utility sector. "More utilities could stand to have industry-specific functionality, like reporting or checking the status of an outage," she says.

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