Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Accordingly, a 'genius' is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.
- Thomas Edison
Meet Your Customers Where They Are - A Quick Overview of CS Week

Just last month I attended my 19th CS Week event in Phoenix focused on educating and supporting utilities in the customer experience lifecycle. The event has transformed over the years from one being focused on only the Customer Information System (CIS) to one focused on Analytics, Billing & Payments, Contact Center, Credit & Collections, Digital Customer Engagement, Field Services, and Strategies & Management. This year I noticed a distinct theme around the customer experience and where they are at.

Some, like investor-owned utility American Electric Power (AEP), focused on personalizing the experience for their customers. AEP is doing this with the help of Oracle’s cloud-based CRM and integrating it to AEP’s on-prem based CIS known as MACS (really a legacy Customer/1 CIS). Others, like cloud-based platform company SEW (Smart Energy Water), are espousing the benefits of meeting your customers where they are. The belief is one where the customers are going to mature at their own pace and that pace may not line up with where the utilities are or even plan to be. Therefore, one must plan to meet those customers whether they are using social networks, a mobile app, SMS, or a phone call.

Not to detract from the event’s original roots, the CIS had some activity of its own. Hansen, an Australian company that had acquired US-based CIS application Banner showcased its new upgraded version BannerCX. For years there has been speculation about whether Banner clients would get investment into the product to create new versions. Hansen has done just that and released a new version available in on-prem and cloud versions for existing and new clients.

Columbia-based Open International recently won a new CIS client in the US. Ft. Collins Utilities, a part of the City of Ft. Collins, Colorado, signed with Open International and integrator Milestone Utility Services to implement a new CIS that serves not only traditional utility customers, but also the City’s new broadband business. Historically, telecom services such as broadband are billed via a separate system. Open International has a Telecomm background and therefore has architected its CIS offering to bill utility and telecom services in the same application. Ft. Collins Utilities plan to meet their customers where they are by offering an application that can handle multiple needs of the customers.    

DC Water won an award for the Best CIS Implementation. The effort, known as Project Triton, included VertexOne for the customer portal, mobile customer app, systems integrator, and managed services provider, SAP for the core CIS: Customer Care, Billing and Collections, Confluence Group for planning, scheduling, dispatching, and mobile work management, KUBRA for bill payment and presentment, and AAC for evaluation, selection, contract negotiation, project management and testing. The project took 12 months and cost $46/customer for the CIS when similar projects run $75-$125/customer.

Direct Energy and HCL co-presented an outcome-based model that they are using together where the scope includes Contact Center, Billing, Back-Office, and Credit & Collections business services as well as supporting Applications and Infrastructure Services. While outcome-based models are gaining traction, I found the artificial intelligence piece of the preso quite fascinating. HCL uses a chatbot known as “Ava.” Ava is a cloud-based solution for communicating with customers, is trainable and utilizes advanced NLP functions, and can integrate with CRMs, payment gateways, and most other 3rd party systems.

PPL co-presented a collections management strategy with service provider WNS. Working together, the utility devised a statistically sound approach that utilizes early risk identification mechanisms, dynamically segments customers that ultimately results in a propensity to pay model. Using the new model PPL realized a doubling in its same day dollars propensity to pay.

XCEL Energy and Reliant presented with Google on work they are doing to bring AI via smart speakers into their customer interaction experience. Smart speakers are relatively new generally but appear to have a much higher technology adoption rate than the Computer, Color TV, Internet, Smart Phone usage, and even Social Media usage. According to Google, voice is becoming the “new normal.”  With 1 billion devices in the market, Google Assistant is focused on mass personalization and personalized engagement with your customers. Yes, your customers. Google is working with foundational partners XCEL and Reliant for bill availability & payment (today), usage report and proactive alerts (coming soon), and send bill (in consideration). Google also is looking to recruit more utilities to participate in its Google Assistant endeavors. Talk about meeting customers where they are with a personalized experience.

These are only a few of the interactions I had in Phoenix at CS Week. There are many others not mentioned here that are doing transformational things in the utility customer service space. I would like to thank Rod Litke, John Sild, and the many staff members of CS Week in working to put together such a great annual event. I hope to see many of the industries’ participants next year in Ft. Worth.


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

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