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Alexa, How much electricity have I used this month? Digital Assistants moving into Customer Service

Last month I attended the 41st CS Week in Ft. Worth, Texas. CS Week is the premier annual educational and customer service conference serving electric, gas, and water/wastewater utility professionals across North America and around the world. What caught my eye at CS Week was a presentation given by Gartner VP and Distinguished Analyst Dr. Zarko Sumic on The Impact of IoT on the Future of Utility Customer Systems. Dr Sumic made a statement that “your Customer Information System (CIS) will have to talk to a digital assistant in the near future.” Did I hear that right? My CIS will need to “talk” to Alexa, Google Now, Siri, Cortana, and the like? Now there’s a cool integration that may start to replace not only a phone call, but also a number of customer self-service channels.

The CIS in the utility space has had a long and winding road when it comes to customer service. Many years ago, the CIS itself was a tool used by customer service agents in a traditional call center. Then customer self-service began to make inroads via Internet portals. The ability to inquire about a bill or bill amount online was quite innovative at the time. Call centers themselves began to automate via the interactive voice response (IVR) unit, starting with simple touch tone, to “press-or-say”, to directed dialogue, to natural language functionality. Some of the natural language functionality of today in IVRs is beginning to look a lot like the digital assistants. However, the IVR exists at the utility or service provider’s call center and the digital assistants belong to the customer.

It makes perfect sense that digital assistants will start to talk to the CIS. Nearly a year and a half ago, Amazon announced the ability for Alexa to support “If This, Then That” (IFTTT) trigger commands. This is an important milestone in providing customer service as IFTTT is a third-party service that automates how devices, apps, and websites work with each other through rules. Sounds a lot like the API’s used when integrating to the CIS.

Utilities and service providers have made great progress over the years taking a standard call center and converting it to be an omni-channel contact center. Not only can customers call for customer service, they can also text, e-mail, chat, utilize a portal or app on their smart phone, or use the IVR instead of talking to a person. Here is where yet another game-changer enters the space.

In March of this year, Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced Amazon Connect, a cloud contact center as a service offering. Salesforce quickly followed announcing that it is collaborating with AWS to integrate Service Cloud Einstein with Amazon Connect. The two announcements extended the global strategic alliance between AWS and Salesforce helping simplify and expand how customers capture, analyze and act on data. They also detailed how customer service representatives could utilize the “as-a-service” contact center to help customers, yet I wonder how long it will be before the customer service reps are being replaced by Alexa, or natural language IVR type functionality. GE Appliances have already started using AWS Connect for contact center services.

Are we there yet? No. But as Dr. Sumic suggests, this will happen in “the near future.” The key will be standardizing a set of commands, or IFTTT type trigger commands so that differing digital assistants can get the same results. Whether a customer uses Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Now, or others, they can still find out how much electricity they have used this month, or how much the bill may be at end of month, or other questions they may have. What an exciting time we live in.

Jon Brock is President of utility and energy advisor Desert Sky Group, LLC.  He can be reached at 

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