Kenya Power improves customer service.
Kenya Power presents customer with the USSD platform for meter readings. Image credit: 123fr.

While industry professionals, governments and the private sector prioritise increasing energy access and rural electrification rates, those who eventually get into the power-connected fold deserve an even better customer experience.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 4-2019.
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In years past, the traditional utility customer needed assurance that when he flipped the power switch in his home, office or business, the electric light would come on.

He also expected that, once in a while, this may not happen, and that whenever failure happened, the local power utility or municipality would communicate what the issue was and when it would be resolved.

This was in the third industrial revolution that delivered the automation of most industrial processes powered by electricity – itself having arrived in the second revolution.

Once the electrons arrived in the customer’s sockets, his life and business really began to flourish. It is in this domain that municipal and utility customer experiences are registered. They really didn’t care much if a 100MVA substation was off. All they needed was reliable power supply and the easiest ways to pay for it.

That state has now also transformed with today’s customer also wanting to sell power to the grid and to easily receive payment for it. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR), driven by digital technology, has the ability to integrate biological, physical and digital elements to enable faster decision-making. Latest developments like artificial intelligence are actually able to make decisions without human intervention.

Are our customers about to see the arrival of robots on their doorsteps to fix service failure? I don’t know. But the 4IR presents a huge opportunity for this to happen faster than ever imagined.

Smoothing the way beyond pilot project mode

In a blogpost by management consulting company, McKinsey & Company, The new way to engage with energy customers: Personalisation at scale, energy companies struggling with customer churn can borrow lessons from the retail and consumer goods industry to build loyalty and boost sales through personalisation. The following is an excerpt from the article: Utilities have started experimenting with simple forms of personalisation, such as splitting their customer base into two subsets to test two different messages for a price-adjustment campaign. However, most still send out identical messages to all their customers.

Although developing personalisation capabilities may seem daunting at first, getting started is more manageable than it seems – and it gives companies a real edge in winning, managing, and retaining customers. McKinsey’s research shows that companies that provide effective personalised content can increase sales by 10% or more, as well as delivering five- to eightfold improvements in their return on marketing spending.

However, all too often utilities find themselves stuck in pilot mode, running a few successful campaigns but struggling to roll them out across their customer base. To scale up, they need to take three actions: update their data in real time and automate their algorithms, ensure their system infrastructure is stable, and create more interfaces to their sales channels.

Real-time data and automated algorithms: An automated interface that collects data at the right points and integrates them into algorithms enables companies to constantly update their view of a customer’s likely behaviour. These algorithms must be designed to handle ongoing data updates without manual intervention. An interface to customer-relationship-management and campaign-management systems is also needed to receive this information and save it in the right place for each customer.

System infrastructure: Real-time data handling creates new IT challenges. Transporting gigabytes of data requires adequate storage capacity and efficient transmission systems. Interfaces are needed for sharing information between different stages and formats: raw data, the customer view, calculations of results, and campaign management.

Channel interfaces: Having identified promising pilots, companies need advanced execution capabilities to expand their campaigns to a broader audience. Call-centre staff launching outbound campaigns may need training, reorganisation, and new incentives, for instance. Campaigns using mail or email may place additional demands on hardware, software, and services such as printing. Content may vary from one channel to another, creating a need for more content-management employees.

Putting these elements in place takes effort, but companies should not be deterred by worries about the scale of the task. Simple actions can be effective in the early stages and yield results that provide momentum for more challenging work ahead.

Biggest drivers of the 4IR

What makes the 4IR remarkable, is its speed of change and the trail of disruption, most of it positive, it leaves behind. The three elements of electricity as we know them – ohms, amperes and volts – have remained unchanged since Thomas Edison’s time in 1879. However, the way we continue to serve these elements to our customers and make money out of them continues to change rapidly and deeply.

Notably, the biggest drivers within the 4IR include high-speed mobile internet, Internet of Things, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, cloud technology, biotechnology, and blockchain. Utility customers are already using and experiencing these changes in other facets of their lives that the electricity industry powers. To fully appreciate the impact of 4IR on customer service, we need to examine what is happening to the customer, what is happening in the electricity market before and after the energy meter.

In the 4IR, the focus is on intelligent automation that frees the customer from repetitive decisions. The elements intend to give the customer the power of choice often referred to as energy democracy. They are also intended to deliver convenience and at the least cost. Most electricity costs are fixed and regulated, but we can better the experience.

The customer is already enjoying these benefits in medicine, travel, banking, telecommunication, and education among others. They therefore expect power companies to do the same or even better. The customer’s property and the electrical appliances therein are already connected, and probably to a connection to the municipal lamppost on which their security camera is mounted outside the gate. The lamppost will also likely carry the area’s internet hotspot.

All these devices naturally need a power connection in order to support the kind of customer experience envisaged by the different players in the 4IR. Power companies therefore must elect to be central in the design of the user experiences to ensure a fulfilling integration. This democracy allows customers to vote with their ‘switch’. Switch to solar, switch to stored energy, switch to infinity grids and to abandon the grid altogether.

Because of this reality, electricity companies should collaborate or start value added services that support the customer experiences envisaged by 4IR. From network planning, to electric vehicle charge monitoring, to 5G hotspots in a municipality. This will require a comparatively new set of skills in customer service. This is the time to shed call centre templates.

Most utilities, especially in Africa, are undergoing reforms aimed at delivering efficiencies. There have been cases of successful unbundling in Uganda and Kenya. South Africa, premised on deeper pockets that can deploy the best resources for research and development, has just released a roadmap for the future of its national power utility, Eskom. Whether these efficiencies are delivered in vertical utilities or unbundled entities is a conversation for another day.

What is undisputable is that 4IR is decentralising control and operations of national grids. Its application is making it possible to integrate mini grids, infinity grids and solar farms so that the customer has a choice whether to buy from the utility, mini grid, or to draw power from his storage lithium battery. If this integration can deliver near 100% reliability, the customer benefits and business thrives. Imagine doing this in a single click following a prompt from a smart fridge or security light at the gate delivered to a 5G smartphone.

Is it good-bye SCADA?

Most utilities, especially in Africa, deployed System Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to improve public safety and customer service in that strict order. Then came the concept of smart grids; where networks could talk to the grid controllers and the customers could interact, in a controlled way, with their utilities providing vital data necessary to improve response times and reduce the hours of darkness. The 4IR is designed around user experiences – think intelligent fridges, kettles and LED lighting depending on AI to perform the tasks they are expected to. For that to happen, the utilities must deploy 4IR technology both upstream on the grid and at every customer interface.

Interestingly, the use of big data analytics will be very important in designing network control and future planning for customer power needs. What does the 4IR customer service agent need to do?

In one word: Learn. The 4IR electricity customer is going to be self-reliant. With access to publicly available grid data, the service algorithm will inform customers on the best option to solve their immediate energy needs. It will also give the options on the best energy deals for consumption and investment. All this will happen in real time. To serve such a customer, the customer service strategists must start rolling out new learning programmes on the immense possibilities of IoT, AI and big data, and the innovative revenue models for energy companies to implement. The time to do this is now. ESI

About the author

David Birungi is the manager for digital media services at Umeme Limited in Uganda where he oversees the integration of digital media across service channels and reputation management.