Back to the Future…

Recently, I was thinking about customer acceptance issues of smart grid initiatives, as they relate to the residential energy consumer. After 30 years of leading efforts in virtually all utility customer facing roles at some point in my career, I tried to recall the first real wide-scale deployment of technology for customer interaction. I came to the conclusion it was the Interactive Voice Response System (IVR). While many industries were deploying IVR’s in the mid-80’s the utility sector was slow to move; largely because the public loathing of these newly deployed technology systems that were designed to “enable empowerment and control by the customer”.

The big idea behind these systems was a basic guiding principle that “people were busy, lifestyles were changing” and these systems would provide opportunity for customer choice of when and how they interacted with the utility, something we call these days “empowerment’. Early designs of these systems allowed customers the ability to call and get information on their account at a time convenient to them, or even turn on service and make a credit arrangement without having to wait in the dreaded “call center queue”. This all seemed to make perfect sense, why would any company not deploy this new tool, and why would any customer not use it?

The fact of the matter was, in the mid-80’s customers responded to these systems in the utility sector in the same manner as other sectors. They were caught in what was then referred to as “voice mail jail”, without options to get back to a representative, and menus that were filled with the verbiage of utility speak. While I was Chairman of the joint EEI/AGA Customer Services Committee in the 90’s, I recall we had standing room only for the IVR break-out session. A speaker I had introduced began his talk with the question “May I see the hands of those who have a voice response system?” One of the member companies vice president of customer care loudly stated: “I do, does anyone want to buy it!” So that was the tenor of the day, unhappy customers, and confused utilities who were merely looking for better ways to serve their customers.

What changed was not simply the passing of time and gradual customer acceptance. The successful companies who emerged as leaders in the deployment of IVR’s began conducting intense customer focus groups, where they played IVR scripting from poorly deployed systems, and well deployed systems, and everything in between. They asked, listened, validated and designed systems with key input from their customers. These pioneering utilities sought the voice of the customer in defining detailed procedural scripting such as how the opt out features would work, and if they opted out, an announcement of the time to speak with a representative would be announced. Furthermore, the customer defined the terms with what made sense to them, not utility vernacular selected by the utility with void of customer input. As the years passed, a science began around using Voice of the Customer in designing and deploying the first true technology based customer systems; the IVR.

As we deploy our smart energy systems, I hope we take a look Back to the Future and recall the lessons learned from the early days of IVR’s and hopefully deploy our smart products with focused customer input, engagement and ongoing feedback.

David E. Steele, CMC
Sr. Director, Smart Energy Practice

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