The AI Wave Powering Customer Engagement for Utilities

AI, Bots

The AI Wave Powering Customer Engagement for Utilities

By 6 Minute Read

Bots Fueling Intelligent Automation and Engagement

The Energy and Utilities sector is characterized by 24 x 7 operations and a large residential and commercial customer base that depends on uninterrupted and critical service levels.

It is also an industry that relies on a distributed and capital-intensive infrastructure that needs to be continuously monitored and maintained by teams of skilled field engineers and technicians. As such, customer service success for utilities is closely tied to operational performance as well as the ability to create engaging experiences for the customer. This makes the industry a natural fit with the intelligent and conversational nature of bots and the underlying natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) that powers them, not only for customer service but also for the operational management of energy and utility infrastructure.

AI Innovation for Energy & Utilities: Beyond Simple Chatbots

For the energy and utility sector there is no shortage of opportunities for AI initiatives to transform customer service as well as improve operational performance. According to a recent survey conducted by Tata Consulting, utility companies are one of the leading investors in AI with 0.53% of average company revenue allocated to AI-related investments. The same survey revealed that energy companies are the top adopters of AI technology with 100% of those surveyed having already implemented AI.

Whether it’s a query on a utility bill, updating customers on the status of a service outage, or responding to other service requests, chatbots are being implemented by utility providers in their contact centers to improve the customer experience while lowering the costs of service delivery.  

But there’s more to bots than meets the eye. While a chatbot is a form of bot, smart bots can have much broader capabilities and characteristics beyond simple conversations. They can operate as agents, simulating human tasks and activities that can range from responding to simple requests for information to handling more complex customer journeys.  Think of onboarding a new customer, proactively guiding customers on smarter usage, or running a retention campaign to win back lost customers. The use cases for smart bots have far wider reach and implications for energy and utility companies than just the virtual assistants or chatbots. 

But bot innovation doesn’t just have to be about driving better engagement with customers. There are also several workforce use cases that offer untapped potential. Take the mission-critical area of field service, where large teams of field maintenance engineers work remotely installing smart meters, maintaining distributed utility infrastructure, or repairing damaged equipment following storm events. Artificial intelligence and smart bots offer new opportunities to transform service workflows and engagement, ultimately providing even better customer experience at lower cost.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) versus Bots: Blurring Lines

Before looking at the use cases for smart bots in more detail, it’s worth exploring the terms “Bots” and “Robotic Process Automation (RPA)”,  both of which are prevalent in the energy and utility sector.

RPA applies AI technology in the form of robots in order to further automate repetitive, predictable or rules-based business processes, replacing human intervention with robots. More often associated with back-office processes in operational departments such as finance, production, maintenance, or HR, RPA is a process-driven and bottom-up approach to eliminating inefficiencies, improving operational performance, and ultimately trimming costs. Typical use cases for RPA are in areas such as processing billing transactions in high volumes, managing consumption metering, and compiling customer records. In industries like energy and utilities, regulatory requirements often drive the need for rules-based process management, which can be automated with RPA.

Bots, on the other hand, can simulate human conversations (either through voice or through messaging) and become smart through continuous learning via the underlying natural language processing (NLP) and AI technologies. Where RPA is process-driven, bots are data- and conversation-driven and follow a more user-centric and free flowing approach, which is why the term bot is often associated more strongly with customer-facing service, sales, or marketing use cases.

So while RPA is focused on automating existing processes by applying AI technology, bots offer the opportunity to take a top-down approach in transforming business processes so that they can respond flexibly to changing customer needs.

Chatbots always involve some form of conversational interaction, via either voice-activated or messaging interfaces. RPA, on the other hand, can be applied to a discrete process that does not involve any type of user chat or interactions. But when you look at the use cases for intelligent automation, the lines between RPA and smart bots can overlap or intersect considerably.

For example, RPA could be applied in the billing process, generating high volumes of customer invoices by downloading utility consumption data and customer information from back office systems, eliminating the need for any human intervention. A smart bot can be also be used in the billing process, for example, by understanding a customer’s intent when they request details of their account status (via text, email, voice etc.), retrieving the appropriate account information from the accounts systems, and responding to the customer via chat. The use case for RPA is about more structured, predictable, and high-volume processes while smart bots can be applied to more fluid, versatile, and user-facing use cases. More and more the lines between the two are blurring as the use cases for smart bots move beyond the virtual assistant in the contact center. At ServisBOT, we created the Army of Bots with these use cases in mind.

An Army of Smart Bots: 5 Sample Utility Bots

By supplementing or, in some cases, replacing human interactions with smart bots, many customer engagements can be made available 24/7 and handled in more automated and efficient ways. This lowers the cost of service delivery while also putting customers in control of how and when they interact with their utility provider. The same principle can also be applied to employee or other stakeholder engagements. For example, bots can equally play a role in field service enablement, providing more intelligent and versatile automation to field service workflows.

At ServisBOT, our Army of Utility Bots, is comprised of individual bots each with specific missions as they relate to the energy and utility sector. Each bot is designed with a very targeted or specific business purpose with a goal of achieving a specific outcome. This makes them easy to deploy while allowing them to communicate with other bots to deliver combined capabilities. Hence the army!

Here are five examples of these task-oriented bots and others can be found in our eBook: 10 Smart Bots to Power Customer Engagement for Energy and Utilities.

  • The AccountBOT is responsible for retrieving a customer’s utility account information and responding to queries on their statement. For example, this bot can respond to a customer request and provide payment due dates, usage patterns, most recent transactions as well as other account information. This bot can be deployed as a standalone bot that is safe and easy to use, or as part of a more complex bot which can support more complex account and billing journeys.
  • The WinBackBOT fights customer churn by proactively winning back and retaining hard-to-reach utility customers. With the costs of acquiring new customers increasing, retention and winning back lost customers is an important focus of marketing initiatives for the sector. By handling outbound campaigns with personalized and interactive conversations, the bot can deliver persuasive offers that convince customers to stay or come back. Check out the test drive for WinBackBOT for an example of how he works.
  • The AppointmentBOT:  This bot helps set up and manage appointments with customers so that field technicians can do any necessary installations, repairs, or routine maintenance. Take for example the installation of smart meters where an engineer may need access to a customer’s property.  The bot can proactively book/modify appointments, send reminders and confirmations, track estimated arrival times, and enable customers to rate appointment quality.
  • The HomeMoverBOT: As customers move house, there is a high risk of them switching their utility vendor to the company that currently provides services at the new address. Facilitating a smooth transfer of utilities from one place to the next is therefore an important aspect of customer retention. And just to put this in context, in the US, people move an average of almost 12 times in their lifetime (lower in Europe but it is still a significant opportunity). This bot facilitates an efficient home mover process that confirms moving out and moving in dates and addresses with the customer, sends reminders and relevant documentation to moving customers, initiates the timely reading of both meters, simplifies other aspects of moving, and updates all records and billing. Accurate bills can be generated that reflect the final utility consumption at the old residence while making sure that the starting point is properly registered at the new home meter. By doing this, revenue losses through not capturing final consumption and inaccurate billing can be avoided.
  • The SmartMeterBOT: The relationship between a utility company and their customers has evolved beyond just being about rates and billing. The advent of smart meters has further enabled utility providers to deliver more personalized information so that customers can be smarter about their usage, saving them money while also being more environmentally friendly. This bot offers customers information on their consumption patterns and real-time pricing and demand patterns,  providing tips on how to better manage their usage. For example, customers can be advised what time periods are less costly so that they can plan accordingly, running a dishwasher or washing machine during the night when demand is low.  It can also offer personalized promotions to support smarter consumption and lower costs. This offers companies an opportunity to strengthen the relationships with customers and build the brand loyalty that creates stickiness and reduces churn.

As you can see, each utility bot has a different role and performs different functions. There are many more bots that can be deployed to handle customer service tasks, manage customer journeys, automate processes, run marketing campaigns, or facilitate employee workflows  The bots are not just confined to customer contact center environments but can also be deployed to handle outbound campaigns or to support field service operations. The army can be expanded so that bots can step in and work intelligently together when needed, stepping back out when they are not required. This gives them the simplicity and versatility required to operate in the free flow world of conversations. They can be scaled up instantly to deal with very large volumes of work and transactional requests and they become smarter as they are exposed to more data and conversations, allowing them to expand their capabilities. So when thinking about the role of conversational AI and bots, look beyond the virtual assistant and explore the use cases where conversations intersect with process, and how these can be more automated and more intelligent.

 

 

 

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