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As AI-driven virtual assistants become more commonplace, what does it mean for utilities? Denise Chevin chaired a roundtable debate supported by Bold360 – part of LogMeIn.

Who’d be an energy retailer? Market competition has ramped up and differentiation has got tougher. The price cap has heaped on more woe and some are finding it hard to break even, let alone make a profit.

It was with these dark clouds hanging over the sector that a group of mid-sized energy retailers came together to debate how automation of customer engagement might help their business. Could chatbots ride to the rescue, reduce costs, boost efficiency and deliver customers a better service? Or would replacing people with machines represent too much of a risk, alienate bill payers and send them to suppliers where a human would always be there to pick up the phone? In an era where the mood music has been all about personalisation, is automation a step forward or a step back?

Heart of the debate

This tension was at the heart of the debate as our group of automation novices set about exploring the positives and negatives of harnessing new AI technology.

Virtual assistants are a growing presence in all walks of life. They allow users to ask questions or make commands in their everyday language and deliver the needed content or service in a conversational style, either through text or voice. So, it was perhaps unsurprising that without exception, our participants felt that this was an inevitable direction of travel for their energy businesses.

But what would get the ball rolling? What were key considerations? And how could they identify the situations in which automation would work best?

As the group debated these important questions, here are few takeaways to provide food for thought.

Robots – what are they good for?

A quick straw poll of our guests revealed that 60-70 per cent of their engagement with customers was through phone calls – with a number saying that customers are increasingly turning to apps. But all agreed that the majority of these calls were routine queries that could be answered automatically.

The dilemma for utility firms, as many saw it, was that they have a broad range of customers to cater for. Though it wasn’t necessarily split down demographic lines, there was a tendency for the older generation to want to speak on the phone and they would go out of their way to find a person they could speak with. As one of our participants said: “We cannot put the customer out.”

There were also fears that customers simply wouldn’t trust what a robot said and would still need human reassurance.

Amir Sabo, senior customer success and experience manager, LogMeIn – developer of Bold360 – said, “AI can help address many customer intents while still allowing customers to contact the companies via phone, chat or e-mail in relevant cases, as there will still be situations where a human is best to resolve the customer’s needs.”

Robots could also be used to help feed staff useful knowledge when they were dealing with customer queries and requests.

Should a robot have a personality?

Though not from the big six firms, many of those attending our roundtable represented energy retailers that had successfully challenged legacy brands and were themselves becoming household names. They had created particular niches and marketing for their brands around specific qualities and services. How should robots reflect their values? Or as one retailer asked, how do you inject warmth?

“If the customer phones up and speaks to one of our officers they get greeted with a nice friendly local accent, so should a robot sound the same?”

This was a tricky one. While having a sassy, cool, character might make the experience more fun – a bit like some of the more recent domestic robot assistants trying to help in our homes – there was also nervousness that such personality traits would be off-putting. While a number of customers might find it amusing to speak to a ‘character’ robot, others would not.

What came across as a golden rule was that retailers must not try to pull the wool over their customers’ eyes. Instead, customers should always be told if they are speaking or typing questions to a machine – as the technology advances, it will become less obvious.

What about vulnerable customers?

Concerns were inevitably raised about how greater automation might play out with vulnerable and elderly customers.

Again, there were seen to be pros and cons. On the plus side, it might be easier for a partially sighted person to ask their voice assistant to find their energy bill, pointed out one participant. But that’s if they could be convinced to use it, said another, thus highlighting the barriers to overcome.

On another positive note, robots could be helpful to overcome language barriers and make it easier to engage customers whose first language may not be English.

When is it the right time to roll out?

“Technology exists to do some awesome stuff,” said one of the roundtable participants, summing up. The comment reflected the sentiment of the others. The big question, however, was how to decide where to invest – and achieve the best return on investment.

Automation of customer engagement is just one of a number of priorities that are competing for time and money. Some felt that automation would have to sit alongside more structural changes and investment. “There’s a lot to fix in utilities – it’s a question of which job you do first,” was a comment that seemed to sum up the conundrum they faced.

Experts from Bold360 offered guests weighing up their options a guiding star to steer by: customers will actually see their customer experience and quality of service from any utility provider improve if the provider uses an AI-enabled chatbot, despite perhaps the provider using the technology to save money.

Automation should boost the quality of service, free staff from routine queries and give them more time to deal with those that are less straightforward.

Agents and bots need to work in harmony

Conversational chatbots and intelligent FAQs provide immediate answers to repetitive questions and perform automated tasks, freeing up agents to be available to help customers in the moments that matter, writes Sandra Schroeter.

Customers can easily check their tariff or balance, change their direct debit or submit a claim for a refund without the need to navigate the website. Achieving the right balance between automated and AI-assisted agent interactions is important.

Customers should have the option to get in touch with a human agent, for example when the enquiry is more complex. AI can’t do everything, but it is very good at some things. Harmony between agents and bots is a crucial element in delivering great customer experience while reducing cost to serve.

Customer experience is the battleground that will decide winners and losers among energy suppliers over the next decade. Improving CSAT, while simultaneously reducing CTS, is key. Companies will have to find the right balance between automation and humanity to develop a sustainable customer engagement strategy. This requires a deep understanding of the customer journey as well as the right technology.

This is an abbreviated version of an expert view by Sandra Schroeter, international head, customer engagement technologies, LogMeIn, the developer of Bold360. The full version appears in May’s Flex, here.