AI delivers resilience as we enter a new era

As the utilities sector continues to face significant disruption, AI chatbots are providing the resilience energy suppliers need while improving their customer and staff experiences

The utilities sector has been significantly disrupted by numerous market forces over the last decade, but none have been more significant than supporting millions of customers and employees during a global pandemic. Businesses of all sizes are rapidly responding to a significant rise in digital customer engagements while scrambling to support frontline staff now working remotely. Resilience is not a new theme for utilities, but new approaches must be adopted quickly for suppliers to survive.

In 2011, the big six energy firms had 98 per cent market share. Come this year and that had reduced to around 73 per cent and the number of energy providers in the UK had proliferated to more than 70. The cost of not adopting sustainable new models couldn’t be higher, with 15 small energy suppliers having collapsed since January 2018.

An influx of nimble upstarts in the market has challenged the dominance of the big six. In 2011, switch rates were very low, with people typically only thinking of changing supplier when they moved house. Fast forward nine years, however, and annual switch rates now stand at around 20 per cent. This continues to grow despite a new energy price cap that came into force at the beginning of last year, with many households realising they can still get a better deal by shopping around and they often get a better customer experience too.


The latter has created a new battleground for attracting new customers and retaining existing ones, particularly those influenced by league tables compiled and published by influential independent organisations such as Which? and Uswitch, which rank suppliers based on aspects including service quality, availability and number of complaints.

“Energy suppliers aren’t just competing on price with an unprecedented number of companies, they’re also competing on customer experience, and a fifth of their customer base is at risk every month,” says Lloyd Buxton, utility lead at Bold360 by LogMeIn. “In other sectors, providers delivering a better service can charge more for it. Energy firms can’t do that because of the cap and profitability is already low, with a sector average of just 2 per cent. They need to do more with less, better, faster and cheaper.”

In response to these challenges, energy suppliers are undergoing digital transformation programmes to drive cost efficiencies and improve customer experience. Increasing channel shift is an important metric for many businesses, especially those dealing with a surge in digital contacts, but it only delivers the desired benefits when it’s coupled with a high level of digital containment.

Dealing with an issue via a chatbot interaction that costs the company a tenth of the cost of a phone call may sound like an obvious business decision. But if the chatbot doesn’t resolve the issue, then the customer will escalate using a higher-cost channel and is likely to become more frustrated.

The accuracy levels of natural language and speech-to-text technologies, and the algorithms underpinning them, have advanced drastically in recent years, enabling companies to embrace chatbots for customers and staff in ways they previously couldn’t. Increasingly, this includes deploying internal chatbots for routine human resources and IT queries. Remote workers can’t just pop in to see HR or IT and ask a quick question.

“The technology has come on massively,” says Buxton. “We’re talking high 90s in terms of the percentage of intent recognition for a question to one of our chatbots, no matter how it is written. For example, a customer could say their power is off in numerous different ways: ‘I have no supply.’ ‘My gas or electricity is not working.’ ‘I’ve lost power.’

“Internally, remote-working staff are using chatbots to ask HR and IT questions, and to guide them through processes. No matter how they phrase their question, the technology is able to understand what they’re saying and respond accurately.

Some energy providers deactivated their live chat functions when volumes grew amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but this really defeats the point of what a chatbot is designed to do

“This is tremendously significant for companies because the technology’s working, it’s understanding people’s questions and it’s fixing their problems, which is music to business leaders’ ears because they can reduce their cost base while also improving the experiences.

“Bold360 is hugely effective for energy vendors as it’s a multi-channel digital engagement platform with a view across the entire customer journey. Customers of Bold360 are now even able to pre-empt customer intent and offer proactive care based on behavioural triggers and the first few typed words of a question.

“Automating the right customer journeys to a high level of accuracy, such as resetting passwords or changing your address or direct debit, drastically reduces the strain on human agents. Then, when the journey does need to escalate to a human channel, be it via live chat, email, messaging or phone, the transition is entirely seamless because it is supported by one technology.

“Resolution rates grow across the entire customer journey by improving self-service and also increasing capacity in live service channels.”

The biggest benefit to organisations, however, is resilience. In times of disruption, whether related to technology, regulation, growing competition, changing customer expectations or more macroeconomic factors, business resilience will often determine the market winners, and energy suppliers have faced all of these challenges concurrently in recent years. When a health pandemic is added into the mix, as with COVID-19, resilience becomes absolutely central to success and survival.

As the UK began its response to the COVID-19 outbreak and staff increasingly worked from home, Bold360 saw huge spikes in digital customer activity. Over just a couple of weeks, live chat volumes doubled across its client base and support centre queries increased by 500 per cent as people turned to digital channels when they couldn’t get through on the phone. Meanwhile, chatbot volumes grew by around 30 per cent.

Put simply, those with a tightly integrated live chat and chatbot solution were able to continue to serve their customers while others crumbled under the pressure.

“Our clients have been able to offer a truly 24/7 service during these testing times,” says Buxton. “They’re not just limited to the hours they can have people in a building, if they can even be in the same building together.

“Artificial intelligence, or AI, gives them a live, quantifiable view of what their customers are asking after. Advanced algorithms cluster similar questions into single intents, making it easier to spot a problem and respond faster. It provides that needle-in-a-haystack view of where systems and processes need to change, and an early-warning system to deal with issues as they arise.

“Better resilience and engagement is also evident on the agent side. The technology is accessible via web browsers, which means all agents who need to work remotely can continue to respond to queries on Bold360 chat without disruption. And by removing the repetitive questions that live agents previously had to deal with, companies can offer a better employee experience which is likely to lead to even better productivity.

“If you can give staff better technology to work with, they will be happier and fundamentally they’re going to be more resilient and provide more help in those times of need.”

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Utilita gets even smarter with chatbots

Already a leader in smart energy, Utilita has leveraged live chatbots to build a more intelligent and efficient customer experience while driving significant cost-savings

 Utilita is one of the UK's largest energy suppliers outside of the big six, serving 800,000 households. As the first energy company to install smart meters in UK homes, it has led the way in smart energy. Nine in ten of the households supplied energy by the company have smart meters installed, compared to only around half across the rest of the nation.

Since launching in 2003, Utilita has sought to improve the experience of those who prepay energy. By linking a smart meter to an in-home display, users can see in real time what they consume, reducing usage by an average of 20 per cent. They can set daily, weekly or monthly budgets to control spending and top up in the My Utilita app.

As customer touchpoints are more frequent with prepay energy, call volumes are invariably higher than those associated with credit customers. Utilita specialises in customers facing financial difficulties or other challenges best solved with a reassuring voice at the end of a phone.

Most customer queries, however, are more routine questions with a simple answer. As a result, three years ago Utilita deployed a chatbot solution and since November 2019 it has been powered by Bold360 by LogMeIn.

“Having implemented chatbots previously, we saw a real difference in how Bold360 approached the initial scoping stages, starting not with what we wanted, but what was really driving our customers to contact us,” says Chris Downs, head of delivery at Utilita. “This novel approach and Bold360’s ability to implement the system quickly was attractive.

“As an independent energy company, we move quickly and need to adapt to the needs of our customers during what can be some really hard times. The Bold360 platform is so incredibly easy to use, which has allowed us to reduce the time it takes to feed the chatbot with the necessary information, speeding up the delivery to our customers.”

Bold360 has delivered huge value for Utilita, while dealing with customer queries much faster. Its chatbot receives more than 220,000 questions each month, 71 per cent of which are answered without any human intervention. When the cost to fulfil a chatbot inquiry is mere pennies, compared to several pounds for a phone call, the savings are clear.

Some energy providers deactivated their live chat functions when volumes grew amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but this really defeats the point of what a chatbot is designed to do

A core team of three people are responsible for identifying trends in customer behaviour and reviewing available content. Through close monitoring of Bold360’S easy-to-use dashboard, any questions that aren’t being answered sufficiently by the chatbot are flagged, enabling the team to spring into action and provide answers or solutions, which can be accessed via the chatbot within minutes.

“Bold360’s dashboard enables our team to easily identify questions that might require some additional web functionality,” says Downs. “After seeing a trend for people asking for their customer reference number, we decided to create a widget where they could enter some security details and it would give them their reference number automatically. This observation has enabled 10,000 customers, who have since asked the same question via the chatbot, to self-serve saving thousands in call handling.

“More than 96,000 Utilita customers have used the chatbot on more than one occasion. It has clearly become the communication mode of choice for many, especially those in the younger, digital-native demographic. Other energy providers deactivated their live chat functions when volumes grew amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but this really defeats the point of what a chatbot is designed to do. During one of the biggest crises this country has faced, our well-managed and informed chatbot reduced call volumes by 84 per cent.”

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