Gartner’s recent Business Continuity Survey1 shows just 12 percent of organizations are highly prepared for the impact of coronavirus. Very few would have planned and provisioned for a global crisis that kept virtually their entire workforce sequestered at home for weeks or months.

For leaders in the utilities industry, the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will unfold over the coming months, but the decisions that they make today and, in the near term, will determine the future for their organisations.

Minimise the impact

Most Utilities are in this stage now. They are protecting core operations, focusing on safety of employees, and protecting vulnerable customers while managing reductions in productivity. Based on our work with utilities clients, below represents best practices across the 3 dimensions: employees, customers and the business itself.

Employees

Utilities first prioritized the safety of their employees, using a variety of tactics. Now that companies have had some time to migrate to remote-work environments to some degree, the following measures should be enabled to improve productivity while maintaining safety:

  • Continue to provision remote working across operations
  • Establish multiple secured collaboration interfaces including mobile apps for employees to connect and collaborate internally as well as with suppliers
  • Allow flexible working for parents as most of the countries have school closures in effect
  • Employee support services including helplines and other resources
  • Personal protective equipment must be provided to those in the field
Belgium utility, Fluvius, is reassuring customers that they will always help people who are experiencing supply issues, but asks residents to keep at a safe distance (5 feet/ 1.5meters) from utility engineers
 

Business

  • A cross-functional COVID-19 Command Center has likely been created and will be core going forward
  • Immediate assessments are needed of processes and functions with high manual intervention and critical third-party dependencies to understand key risks
  • Identify policy exceptions that warrant a crisis management exception approval process on an accelerated basis
  • Use Data & Analytics to evaluate impact and continue to move resources between threads based on impact assessment
  • Clear communication to customers, particularly in emergency and critical situations

Customers

  • Identify and prioritise customers who need additional support
  • Create to outreach programmes for customer safety and offer assistance, where appropriate
  • Consider reassessing, reducing or pausing debt repayment and bill payments
  • Aggressively expand the adoption of digital self-service approaches
  • Update FAQs and disseminate through multiple channels, including website and social media to proactively address customer concerns
  • Focus on sending estimated bills
PG&E are introducing payment plans “for customers who indicate either an impact or hardship as a result of COVID-19.”
 

Accelerate the recovery

Once the initial shocks are absorbed, companies should identify new ways to improve productivity, build operational resilience, enhance customer experience and improve revenue. These are challenging times, but companies are also starting to look ahead. The following should be considered to accelerate the recovery:

Employees

  • Embed analytics into WFH operations to generate insights about quality, productivity, compliance and customer experience
  • Rapidly deployable attended/unattended automation to employee productivity, offsetting short term WFH-related productivity declines
  • Re-deploy teams where they are most needed such as complex customer management situations, product innovation, high impact planning, or growth

Business Productivity

  • Use analytics engines to identify where manual touchpoints can be automated, then scale the deployment of Robotic Process Automation
  • Augment remote workforce with advance digital technologies (like Next-Best-Action Engines)
  • Implement agile workforce planning leveraging analytics to modify IVR menus, messaging, prioritization and distribution logic
  • Control, optimise and continuously improve back office processes in real-time with digital workflow solutions
  • Create demand and supply models that demonstrate the impact on service level achievement under variable scenarios
EXL deployed its Advance Analytics Decision Engine (MIA) and RPA for a large energy provider to reduce outstanding and deliver higher efficiency (~20K manual hours saved in last 30 days freeing up resources to work on critical processes)
 

Estimated billing

Operations have to become more agile as the impacts of COVID , but companies also need to improve customer experience, enhance cash flow and eliminate any regulatory non-compliances.

More bills will be created based on estimated reads. This might lead to large number of customers falling into the vicious cycle of estimation, bill shock and debt. Few key interventions that can be quickly undertaken are:

  • Determine threshold changes in system for estimation to adapt to the situation
  • Use data analytics to determine accuracy of reads received for utilisation from both Smart and Customer to avoid any manual touch
  • Re-calibrate customer prompt strategy for obtaining reads to encourage more customers to submit reads through app/web and move away from contact channels
  • Use data and analytics to inform and engage customers about their consumption change to avoid bill shocks

Monitor bad debt

Some households are already starting to cancel regular payments, while business customers are collapsing. Utilities needs to take remedial actions while ensuring vulnerable customers are treated fairly. Interventions include:

  • Dealing with potential delinquency ahead of time through predictive modelling by tracking customer’s changing circumstances
  • Use micro-segments to move away from making sharper, more impactful decisions. This can enable early identification of self-cure customers and a tailored approach based on value at risk
  • Using advance data modelling to better understand customers’ diverse preferences
  • Deploying an always-on experimentation approach to omni-channel contact strategies to improve connection rates and speed up debt collection
  • Proactive identification of vulnerable customers to refine support programmes
Energy UK, a trade body for electricity and gas suppliers, has approached the government about a loan scheme as utility companies report that customers are cancelling direct debit payments, according to several people familiar with the talks2


Adjust and align value propositions, pricing and tariffs

It is imperative to understand customer behaviour during and after the pandemic19, using data analytics to align value propositions, pricing and tariffs accordingly.

  • Tariffs: Design tariff plans to leverage consumption pattern changes and provide more energy savings to customers
  • Pricing: Reset pricing / discounts / loyalty schemes to meet customer’s evolving near-term needs (e.g. Allowing customers to pay bills using their loyalty points)
  • Value propositions: change the marketing to focus on the emotional needs of the customers (e.g. Smart Homes value proposition can be different for Care Homes as compared to normal homes)

Customer management

  • Update call volume forecasts to reflect current patterns
  • Provide call back features for non-urgent calls to ensure that vulnerable customers and emergencies are prioritized
  • Empower front line agents with Next Best Action tools and intelligent FAQs
  • Activate and augment alternative contact channels like virtual agents, chat, etc.
  • Assist customers to transition from traditional channels to digital and remote channels
  • Use data and insights to understand failure points / high customer effort on the digital channels and continuously improve experience

Plan for the future

Continue to invest on Remote Working:

  • Identify how to expand the remote workplace including a heightened focus on home networking, cyber security and helping employees to embrace the new normal
  • Rapidly enable remote employee hiring, onboarding and training capabilities
  • Enhance Risk Control Self-Assessments (RCSA) to ensure technical and administrative controls effectiveness, while computer vision and initiatives emerge to augment physical controls

Right mix of digital and human workforce:

  • Encapsulate operations with digital capabilities for continuity and offset loss in productivity.
  • Reduce people dependent physical interactions and expensive voice interactions while improving CX
  • Redeploy moderate and high complexity customer interactions for human agents
  • Accelerate self-service through chat & voice for low-touch flow transactions

Intelligent operations using data

  • Embed analytics into operations to share the right actionable insights at the right time with decision-makers at all levels of the business
  • Understand which interventions will improve customer experience and lower costs
  • Anticipate changes of direction as per changing customer and environment needs
“Automation of various activities can improve the performance of almost any business process. Beyond enabling reduction in labor costs, automation can raise throughput, increase reliability, and improve quality, among other performance gains” - (Source: McKinsey Global Institute – A future that works: Automation, Employment and Productivity)


Agile Mindset

  • Create a network of empowered teams focussing on rapid iteration, experimentation, continuous learning, and action-oriented decision making
  • Shift from pyramid-shaped skillset mix to diamond-shaped skillset mix of leaders, thinkers and doers
  • Re-purpose roles with cross-functional skillsets focused on growth and innovation
  • Integrated operational-improvement program with agile teams organized around journeys
“Research shows that agile organizations have a 70 percent chance of being in the top quartile of organizational health, the best indicator of long-term performance” - (Source: McKinsey - The five trademarks of agile organizations)


Growth

  • Identify realistic opportunities and high growth channels, invest in customer outreach and customer service preparedness
  • Reinvest marketing spend to drive highest ROI growth while ensuring communication is sensitive, relevant and authentic
  • Target value-added SOLR and acquisition opportunities

COVID-19 has radically disrupted business-as-usual operations overnight. However, it has also shown that people are more than adequately equipped to adapt quickly and overcome global business challenges. Utility leaders can seize this opportunity to build an agile and intelligent operating model powered by digital and human workforce.

In the new normal of Virtual Working, the right orchestration of digital, data and domain will be necessary to shape future business models, forge new levels of trust with employees and position their business for greater resiliency and productivity in the future.

References

  1. https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-03-10-gartner-business-continuity-survey-shows-just-twelve-percernt-of-organizations-are-highly-prepared-for-coronavirsu
  2. https://www.ft.com/content/3d77833b-aae6-4127-ac7c-ce3e27d40943

Please note: The information in this article was correct at the time of publication on 20th April 2020, but, because of the impact of COVID-19, things are changing rapidly and we will continue to update our materials accordingly.

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