Online services are popping up - for commodity trading, retail marketing and back-office billing. But is the Web right for every application?
A recent study by Connecticut-based META Group Inc. finds that while less than 5 percent of all utility commerce will be conducted electronically in 1999, 30 percent of customer service and retail bill payments will flow over the Internet by 2004. That prediction highlights a torrent of Web activity in recent months, from power trading online to retail solicitations to electronic customer billing and payment.
But do these Internet services offer real value for users? A related META study of nearly 400 energy utility websites finds that most allow little or no customer interaction. The few companies that have turned to the Web for customer interaction generally say they are disappointed with the level of use by customers. Nevertheless, the energy industry should soon approach other industries in Web use as it grows more competitive, according to META Group.
A majority of utility Web portals visited by the Fortnightly in recent months didn't appear to offer much customer interaction beyond email links, confirming META's website study findings. Innovations in online bill payment and power service, however, seem to have real benefits for customers, providing convenience and potential cost savings. And the latest attempt to move wholesale electricity trading onto the Internet, HoustonStreet.com, appears to address many of the concerns that have hindered past industry efforts. But can any Web-based system offer enough reliability to satisfy traders?