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Customer Service: 2020

Grid upgrades spark an interactivity revolution.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2010

are changing at an exponential pace. Ten years ago we didn’t even have smart phones, and the term ‘social media’ hadn’t been coined yet, so it’s hard to imagine where we’ll be in 2020. But it’s fair to say there will be a heavy virtual component to customer service.

A demographic shift is happening—and utilities are aware of it—including a new generation of customers and a retiring workforce. In 10 years half of the utility workforce probably will retire. And customers are adopting technologies quickly. Some statistics say the volume of text messages now exceeds that of phone calls. And with the rise in smarter self-service applications for mobile devices, a clear direction is unfolding. There are things that haven’t been invented yet, but it’s going to be virtual, with a high level of self sufficiency.

Waters, Oracle: I’d hope that by 2020 smart meters would be common throughout the industry. The demand response and energy conservation programs that utilities are talking about today will be in place. We’ll have a substantial amount of renewable energy being injected into the grid, both from large commercial wind farms, solar facilities and biomass plants, and also distributed generation down to the residential level. Maybe a carbon cap-and-trade system will be in place, or some kind of carbon tax, and energy will be quite expensive. The days of cheap energy will be over, but we’ll have a cleaner environment, fewer carbon emissions and more renewable energy sources.

And the future will bring benefits in customer service. Customers will still use the telephone to communicate with utilities, but customer service representatives (CSR) will know the needs of the customer and will be able to handle the customer’s experience. Customers will be able to take many actions on their own via self-service systems. This will reach new levels beyond the automated call-in systems and kiosks utilities use today, with things like mobile applications and social media.

In short, customer service will reach a new level, with a high degree of self service, much like we see in retail industries today.

Sullivan, Vertex: There will be a huge amount of data available to the utility and to the customer, about everything from appliances to rooftop solar cells to how the customer’s electric car is performing and whether it needs maintenance. But that conflicts with peoples’ desire to have simplicity in their lives. Utilities are thinking about how to convert data into something valuable for the customer.

An important piece of that is integration. The data will be everywhere, and systems will need to be integrated. For example, if you plug in your electric car at your grandma’s house, who pays for the electricity?

Non-utility companies are looking at this market and asking how they can make money. If systems are interconnected and integrated, the utility’s next competitor might be an appliance company or a mass-market retailer. It might be General Motors.

Jimenez, HP: The industry is going into territory that it doesn’t really understand. But taking such industries as banking and telecommunications as examples, we can speculate about