Utilities have plenty of work to do when it comes to customer service. Last year, water and energy firms were ranked as one of the worst performing sectors with regard to customer service by the Institute of Customer Service – not exactly a ringing endorsement.

If utilities are to improve their reputations, then substantial improvements need to be made in the way in which they communicate with their customers. That’s where smarter use of technology, particularly artificial intelligence in the form of chatbots, can make a lasting difference.

Firstly, let’s take a look at what a chatbot is. A chatbot is a form of AI technology that can be utilised to conduct conversations with your customers through an an online messaging platform such as Facebook messenger.  This is a format that many of your customers today are  comfortable with using, not only when communicating with friends and family but with businesses too.

Bots use machine learning, which means that the program becomes smarter with every question asked and answered.  It is equipped to find its way through vast amounts of data, bringing customers the answers and information they need much more quickly than if they are tasked with working their way through a traditional helpline or emailing a support desk.

The benefits to this technology extend far beyond simple familiarity for your customers and a quick answer or two.

Perhaps the most immediate benefit is that by introducing chatbots, you are able to handle customer queries over a 24-hour period. Offering a customer helpline during working hours simply isn’t good enough anymore – today’s customers expect to be able to get answers to any issues they may have at a time that suits them and their schedule.

But with chatbots, you can provide your valued customers with a round-the-clock customer service proposition, without the need to ensure that you have a member of the team on duty at all times.

BETTER EXPERIENCE

Chatbots learn from previous interactions, which means that they are able to answer questions swiftly and more comprehensively than may be the case with a traditional customer service agent.

Of course, chatbots won’t be able to do everything.  There will inevitably be times when a human touch is required. But because the chatbot can retain all of the information the customer has already shared, customer service agents can step in from an informed position, saving the customer from having to repeat their issue from the beginning.

What’s more, as chatbots are taking over the heavy lifting on more straightforward cases, it frees up your staff to devote their time and energy to those more complex issues, where their interventions will be most effective.

The technology is not about replacing the human element from customer service, but ensuring that when a member of staff is involved, they are best positioned to deliver a better quality of service.

Because of the way that this technology can be utilised to analyse your customers’ habits, it puts you in a far more informed position about what they need from you.

This data can be invaluable in helping you to design tariffs, products and service, even delivering bespoke deals based on a customer’s individual usage.

It can also allow much earlier intervention when things aren’t going so well, flagging up the warning signs that a customer may having financial problems and risk falling into bad debt.

This level of insight into the behaviour and requirements of your customers, on a micro level, is not something that firms can rely on from a human customer service team.

Energy customers in the UK have never been so inclined to walk away from suppliers that they aren’t happy with. Figures from the industry’s trade body, UK Energy, confirm that in 2017, 5.5 million energy customers switched supplier.

If utilities firms want to retain their custom, then relying on historic apathy towards switching is not going to cut it. Suppliers need to deliver a quality level of customer service at a time that suits the customer.

We are already working with a range of utilities firms in incorporating chatbots into their customer service functions, recognising that this technology can play a significant role not only in boosting satisfaction levels among existing clients, but in attracting new ones too.

Paul Shepherd is founder and chief executive of We Build Bots 

AI in the energy sector will be discussed at European Utility Week in Vienna in November. For more details and to book your place, click here.

Cybersecurity will also be tackled in detail at POWER-GEN International in Orlando in December. Click here for details.

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