Self-service is a growing need across water utilities that are under pressure to improve customer satisfaction while keeping costs under control. What’s driving the push to self-service? The rise of companies like Amazon (64% of U.S. households are Amazon Prime members) has increased customer expectations to receive immediate on-demand customer service in almost every other product and service category, including utilities.
Biggest drivers of self-service for water utilities:
The Concept of “Normal Business Hours” has Changed
Customers now expect prompt service regardless of whether or not their utility is open. Years of instant messaging, instant feedback loops of Social Media, and the rise of on-demand digital services has conditioned customers to expect service 24/7. The good news is that they don’t necessarily expect to reach a customer service representative 24/7; your Website operates 24/7 and your customers expect to be able to handle their business 24/7 online.
Speed of Service is Critical
Customers have greater expectations than ever for speedy service. They hate waiting on hold for longer than 2 minutes. Social Media networks like Twitter have turned into a key customer service channel, where utility customer issues are broadcast online for all to see. A self-service channel can divert a large portion of this traffic.
Customers Want the Complete Mobile Experience
Today, few people go without a smartphone in their pocket. According to the Pew Research Center, 77% of Americans own smartphones and over one in 10 (and growing) American adults are “smartphone-only” internet users. This has profound impacts for the way utilities need to do business. It’s no longer enough to make a downloadable PDF form available on the website for start/stop service. Most utility-customer interactions can, and should, be able to take place on a mobile device.
Do you get the concept of customer self-service for water utilities but are unsure about how to get started? No problem! We understand that successfully implementing customer self-service involves more than rolling out a technology solution; it involves shifting your utility’s mindset around customer service too. That’s why we created the ultimate guide to customer self-service for water utilities. Read along, email it to yourself for later, or jump to the section that interests you most:
Getting Started with Customer Self-Service
Once you understand that customers no longer respect your office hours and want instantaneous service through their mobile device, the key action is to implement a unified customer portal. A unified portal is a single place from where your customers can pay their bills, see their usage, and sign up for alerts, notifications, utility service, and other programs. We may be biased, but we think our customer portal is pretty great.
Water Customer Journey Mapping
Marketers have developed a concept called customer journey mapping that they use to plan marketing campaigns around the stages that a particular buyer goes through—from awareness to consideration to making a purchase decision. Utilities can use this framework to build a great customer self-service program. How? By better understanding the utility customer’s journey—when, why, and how they interact with the utility—utilities can build thoughtful digital processes to handle the vast majority of customer issues online.
To keep things simple, imagine that there are 3 basic stages for each utility customer: New Customers, Existing Customers, and Customers Leaving the Utility. Journey mapping takes place between and within these stages. At each stage, try to imagine all the things that a customer wants to do and build customer stories to help you determine what self-service products and processes you can implement to help your customers meet their goals.
To create journey maps for your customers, begin with Customer Stories at each journey stage. A Customer Story is a short, simple description of the challenges faced by your customers. They typically take the following form:
As a < type of customer >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >.
For example, for new customers, the following Customer Story might apply:
As a new customer that has recently moved to the City of WaterSmart, I want an easy way to establish water service online so that I can turn my service on with minimal hassle from my smart phone.
Let’s break this down. A new customer who has recently moved to the service area is unlikely to have established internet service but is likely to have a smartphone. Therefore, they need to be able establish water service from their smartphone and that means no downloadable PDF forms that they have to print out, sign, and scan. They ought to be able to establish service with a valid credit or debit card and their service address, the same as any other modern service. The alternative is that they will call the utility, which they—and the utility—would rather not happen. Handling these common customer issues online is the low-hanging fruit of establishing an effective customer self-service program.
To get you started on writing customer stories, download our PDF of common customer stories for water utilities.
Reasons Customers Call
Why do customers call their water utility? The number one reason customers call, by far, is to complain about a bill. 68% of customer calls are due to their water bill being too high. Another 10% call because they can’t understand their bill. All told, nearly 80% of calls to customer service are due to billing. Either a customer thinks their bill is too high and calls to complain, or they don’t understand their bill, or they call to pay their bill over the phone. Having a unified Customer Self-Service Portal where customers can quickly and easily pay their bills and can help them resolve high bills without calling their utility is key to reducing calls to customer service.
When a utility customer initiates service, they are in a period of transition. Moving is stressful and they may have a fair amount of anxiety about it. They are likely to have recently moved to the area and as such may not yet have established internet or any other such service. The utility should think about the customer’s state of mind when designing the start service process. As stated above, if the new customer is likely to have not yet established internet service, then enabling that customer to sign up for service from their smartphone with minimal friction is a great idea. Starting water service is also a great time to get the customer signed up for other services like autopay, paperless billing, and any special programs that the utility is promoting, because the customer is already primed for change and the utility is top-of-mind. Start service is an opportunity to build trust and begin the relationship on the right footing.
Stopping or transferring service is similarly a period of customer transition. Although their workflows vary, the utility typically needs to terminate service, do a final read, and issue a final bill. Eliminating friction in stop/transfer requests is key to ensuring a good customer experience and minimizing unnecessary calls to utility customer service.
When do most customers interact with their utility? When they pay their bill. They might glance at the bill for a minute, attempt to understand it, and pay it. When the bill is significantly greater than expected, they may call the utility. Taking a cash payment online is a deceptively simple process that involves a complicated interplay between the customer’s and the utility’s banks. When a customer pays their bill, their account is debited and the utility’s account is credited, less any transaction fees that are typically split by the customer’s bank (also known as the Issuer bank) and the utility’s bank ( known as the acquiring bank).
Absorbed Fee vs. Convenience Fee Model
The main choice a utility has when choosing a payments provider is whether they want to cover the credit/debit card transaction fees (Absorbed Fee Model) or pass them onto their customers (Convenience Fee Model). Absorbing the transaction fees is best for incentivizing as much online payments participation as possible but some utilities can’t or won’t budget for it, or their rate setting rules prevent them from recovering transaction fees in general rates when only a portion of customers pay online. Utilities that absorb the fees benefit from special rates set by the credit card networks (i.e. the Interchange).
Taking advantage of the payment moment
The moment that a customer pays their water bill every month is a brief opportunity for the utility to promote relevant services while they are top-of-mind. For instance, if a customer is not already signed up for paperless billing, the moment they log in to pay their bill is an ideal time to present them an offer to go paperless. How can you take advantage of the payment moment?
|Customer situation||Relevant offer||When to present offer|
|If the customer is not signed up for paperless billing||Go paperless!||Upon customer logging into pay bill|
|If the customer is late paying their bill||Sign up for autopay and never miss a payment again!||Upon payment|
|If the customer is delinquent||Sign up for our Customer Assistance Program||Email or text or mailing after delinquent status|
|If the customer has an unusually high bill||Sign up for bill forecast alerts, leak alerts, and high use notifications||Upon bill payment|
Taking payments thru multiple channels
Water utilities in many ways have it harder than e-commerce companies. Water utilities not only need to be optimized for taking payments over the web, but also through any channel—point of sale, over the phone, even through the mail. Water utilities, unlike e-commerce companies, need to account for legacy channels, which creates operational complexity. For instance, if a customer pays through a legacy channel by sending a check in the mail and then signs up for online service, the Portal needs to display up-to-date payment information for the customer’s account regardless of payment channel.
Help Customers Detect and Resolve Leaks on their Own
Water utilities might not often think of it, but water leaks contribute to a significant portion of home repair costs each year. Approximately 14,000 people experience some type of water damage at home or at work each day. Water damage is one of the most common and largest insurance claims, at $7,000 on average.
Customer-side water leaks aren’t just the customer’s problem. Water utilities report that around 10% of customer calls were leak-related and around 22% of customer service time is spent dealing with customers with leak complaints. Clearly, customers believe that water utilities share some responsibility when they have a leak in their home and will not hesitate to pick up the phone to call their utility for help when they have a high bill caused by a leak. Indeed, many utilities will issue leak adjustments on a customer’s bill. This makes dealing with leaks an opportunity for customer self-service and engagement.
A necessary step in establishing customer self-service around leaks is being able to reliably detect leaks. Many utilities incorrectly assume that they need advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), also known as smart meters, to detect and alert customers to leaks. While leak detection is much more precise and faster with AMI, it is possible to detect unusual use with only monthly read data, provided that there is enough data to establish baseline use for the customer (at least 12 months of data).
Utilities need to decide how they will notify customers of suspected leaks. There are basically three choices:
1. Staff-alerted leaks
2. Automated leak alerts
3. No leak alerts—Not recommended
Some utilities handle leak alerts manually by having utility staff call or email customers suspected of having leaks. They operationalize staff-alerted leaks by getting leak flags from their AMI meter data management system (MDM), prioritizing the leaks, and notifying customers.
Automated leak alerts
Utilities that have implemented AMI can detect and alert customers to leaks much faster. Utilities may be surprised by the number of leaks they can detect. WaterSmart analyzed AMI data across 467 thousand single family residential accounts at 22 utilities and found that in any given year, almost half of accounts will have a leak. The number of customers with detectable leaks can overwhelm the utility staff’s ability to keep up with notifying those customers. At this point, utilities need to introduce an automated leak alert system that can dramatically save staff time by automating the leak detection, prioritization, and customer notification processes.
Leak Alerting is not enough
Not all leak alerts are created equal. Imagine you received an urgent message from your utility notifying you that your house had a water leak but with no call to action and no further information. What would you do? You would probably call your water utility. A leak alert without any information on what to do about it is worthless. Information on where the most common leaks in the home take place and how to identify them is critical to establishing self-service functionality for leaks.
Utility Customer Programs
Water utilities often have dozens of programs they promote to customers, ranging from Customers Assistance Programs for indigent customers to greywater education programs. Managing utility programs is a great use case for customer self-service. Utilities can target and promote these programs to the right customers to encourage them to enroll and customers can easily sign up online, which saves utility staff time and hassle managing these programs.
Customer Self-Service in Spanish and Other Languages
According to the Census Bureau, there are 40 million Spanish-speaking people in the United States. That’s around 15 million households. It’s one of the fastest-growing demographics. Being able to reach these households is a must in states like California, Texas, Florida, Nevada, New York, Arizona and New Jersey. But it’s also a need in places you wouldn’t expect like Illinois, areas of Minnesota, Iowa, Oregon, North Carolina, and Kansas.
There are two main ways to localize your website to another language:
- Human-translated content
- Machine-translated content
Human translation is the gold standard in terms of website localization. Only a native speaker can fully grasp the cultural subtleties of language. However, the translation process takes time, especially if you have a lot of content, and requires some planning for how you structure your website data, or else you’ll end up building multiple versions of your website.
Machine translation is more scalable, but sometimes results in incorrect (and unintentionally hilarious) translations.
There is a third way, a hybrid approach that WaterSmart uses which combines the precision of human translation with the scalability of machine translation. We utilize plugins that automatically translate our Customer Self-Service Portal and offer machine or human-translation for the content. This approach reduces the burden and the risk of localization considerably.
There are various metrics for measuring the success of your customer self-service program. Unfortunately, many KPI’s of interest can only be calculated by analyzing data that lives in separate siloed utility systems. For example, call volume might be tracked in call center software, but if the call center software doesn’t talk to the system for tracking service visits, it may be difficult to track the number of customer calls that resulted in a service visit in any given month. As a result, many utilities don’t even bother tracking these metrics. Fortunately, there are a variety of new cloud-based systems powered by API’s that can make deployment and reporting tasks easier. WaterSmart’s mobile validation partner Twilio has a neat digital call center solution that can make reporting on call data much simpler.
Key Metrics to track:
|Metric||Why it Matters|
|Go paperless!||Upon customer logging into pay bill|
|Number of inbound calls||Also known as call volume, this is the number of calls that come into a utility’s call center|
|Type of inbound calls||Most utility calls are billing-related. A customer self-service platform should reduce the number of billing-related calls|
|Time of inbound calls||Track whether call volume spikes at certain times of the day or the month (possibly billing related). This can help inform a messaging campaign to anticipate and avoid inbound calls|
|Call abandonment rate||Measured as the percentage of inbound calls to the utility that are abandoned by the customer before speaking to a representative. A high abandonment rate could be a sign that hold times are too long|
|Number of escalations||How many issues are resolved on the first try by the customer service representative without being escalated to a manager? The right tools at the customer service manager’s fingertips can help avoid call escalations|
|Number of calls that result in a service visit||Known in the industry as truck rolls, calls that require a truck roll are the most expensive calls that a utility gets. Avoiding a service call—by helping customers proactively identify a leak and rule out a meter issue—can save utilities time and money|
|Program participation||Tracking registration rates for utility programs is a key measure of success for customer self-service|
|Days Sales Outstanding||DSO is an accounting metric that is calculated by Accounts receivable / average sales per day. It measures how quickly the utility is collecting money from its customers. A good customer self-service program that promotes online payments and paperless billing should see DSO decline.|
|Leak volume||The percent of water lost to leaks should decline with customer self-service around leaks|
|Leak adjustments||The dollar amount spent on leak adjustments should decline with customer self-service around leaks|
|Customer satisfaction||The percent of satisfied customers on a 1 to 5 scale or an NPS score is a great way to measure customer satisfaction over time. Satisfied customers call less frequently and cost less to serve|