AI delivers resilience as we enter a new era

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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