Meeting consumer expectations has never been more important to businesses across all sectors. Whether you are a retailer, financial institution or a utility firm, the days of being able to successfully hide "back-end processes" are over as transparency thrives and customer loyalty must be won.
But it hasn't always been this way. The financial crisis of 2008 highlighted how widespread failures and a lack of transparency across many banks lost the trust of the consumer, causing significant and enduring reputational damage. If the banks have played the villain for the past few years, the utility sector doesn't lag far behind.
Many consumers would be hard pressed to say that they "trust" their energy supplier, with cases of over-charging and incorrect billing prevalent in the news on a regular basis.
Ofgem's recent announcement that energy suppliers risk "undermining public confidence" by essentially failing to effectively communicate with their customers over wholesale prices, is but one example of how utility firms are slowly but surely being called upon to improve their reputation and build consumer trust. Consumer-facing organisations such as utility firms should consider process automation to streamline back- and front-end processes. Process automation supports what the customer "sees" and can ultimately meet those ever-important end-user expectations.
Take a leaf from retail's book
We only need to take one look at the retail sector to see successful process automation in action. Amazon's new Fire phone, largely designed to let customers identify and then buy things in the "real world" is a huge step in connecting virtual and bricks-and-mortar stores. It's exciting to see retailers such as Amazon focus on delivering new and innovative technologies to improve customer service. Striving for seamless connectivity between what the customer sees and the back-end processes that support this buying is imperative.
Many retailers, such as Volvo and eBay, are one step ahead of the game, using process automation to manage their most critical processes for the reliable movement of information and cash between their suppliers and their customers. If this is winning the battle for customer loyalty why are utility firms not following suit?
Recent research by Which? revealed that incorrect time-on electricity meter clocks are going unnoticed, with consumers losing a fortune. The utility sector must take action or risk a backlash from consumers who suspect errors in their billing. To build trust, these companies need to promise that paying customers will receive timely and accurate data. Clearly, relying on antiquated systems for co-ordinating billing and service delivery just won't cut it. Investing in back-end processes and eliminating manual tasks is essential nowadays for rectifying billing errors and improving service delivery in the utility industry.
Automating critical processes for accuracy and seamless customer service should be the lifeblood of any utility firm. Fortis BC, a north American supplier of electricity and natural gas, shows that striving for cutting-edge customer service really does pay off. The company decided to automate its essential meter-to-cash process for improved customer service.
Its Customer Relationship and Billing project went live with process automation on the 3 January, 2012. All systems were running on this day and by the next morning (the first morning of the new process), FortisBC was able to produce and send 50,000 bills, all accurate, all on time. The goals were exceeded, customers had no reason to complain and trust was built. It's amazing to think that many British utilities are lagging behind here, and constantly incorrectly billing their customers.
Failing to win consumers over is fundamentally a business risk. By not automating and streamlining billing or meter-to-cash services, utility firms cannot transform business risk into a healthy cash flow. Reputations are hanging in the balance - if customers think they can benefit from a more sophisticated supplier, they will certainly take their custom elsewhere. Utility firms must understand that process automation is not just a "package" for the IT department to worry about, but is fundamental to the running of the entire business operation.
It's a matter of trust
In today's competitive, transparent and increasingly digital market, utility companies can't afford not to take consumer trust seriously and act accordingly. Disconnected service is simply no longer an option. With the retail industry powering ahead, utilities need to invest in connecting back- and front-end processes for a seamless and hassle-free customer experience. Glitches may happen, but hollow apologies won't retain customers.
Utility firms need to take action and automate their processes, or face the consequences.
Neil Kinson is vice president EMEA, Redwood Software