Engaging with Customers in Their Channel of Choice
Expectations and new technologies are changing the way we interact with our customers. In 2018, our customers conducted nearly 31 million online transactions, more than a 37 percent increase over the previous year. Giving customers multiple channels to engage with us, including self-serve options, is critical to their experience with AEP. For example, if customers can check their bill through a voice channel (such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant) or mobile app, they won’t need to call us. This expedites the solution they are seeking and reduces the volume of calls to which we must respond. In addition, with the integration of new customer relationship management tools, we will be better equipped to respond to customers’ individual needs more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Improving the interaction customers have with AEP is better for them and for us. In 2018, we installed new technology in our Customer Solutions Center that allows customers to engage with AEP more easily using the communication channel of their choice. This includes online chat, email or phone.
In 2019, we are rolling out an automated call-back feature where customers will be able to opt for a return call rather than waiting on hold. This will be especially helpful during times of heavy call volumes, such as during a major outage event. In preparation for this technology change, our customer care agents received 15 weeks of advanced skills training, empowering them to give every AEP customer a positive experience
Our customers are increasingly using a variety of social media platforms to connect with us. Because they are always plugged in, they expect immediate response from us, day or night. This is especially true during outages, when customers expect real-time, accurate information about restoration efforts. AEP manages several social media channels including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Over the past several years, we experienced a significant increase in social media followers and activity, which only increases the need for AEP to provide effective, real-time communications with our customers on our social media channels.
To do this, in 2018 we opened a dedicated Social Media Center at our corporate headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. The new center is run by a combined staff of Customer Care Agents and Corporate Communications team members who are now available seven days a week. The team closely monitors social media feeds for all AEP-related customer posts and interacts instantly with customers, letting them know we are listening and responding to their needs.
With our Social Media Center staff, we are able to quickly respond to customers’ online posts or begin a direct dialogue to learn more about the issue they are experiencing. Through technology enhancements, we are also able to collect better data, such as message sentiment and how often the Social Media team is able to “elevate” an AEP-related post from negative to neutral, or from neutral to a positive post.
Having a dedicated Social Media Center will help us make a significant impact on our customer sentiment, improve our overall customer satisfaction, provide new marketing channels and enhance our company’s reputation. Social media is important because it gives us a near-real-time snapshot of our overall customer satisfaction levels.
Social Media Center Strategy:
- Deliver proactive communications to our customers and stakeholders
- Enhance relationships with key organizations, businesses and other stakeholders
- Protect and enhance our reputation
- Promptly address customer questions and complaints
- Enhance the customer experience
- Promote self-service options
- Deliver real-time outage and safety communications
- Identify and mitigate reputational, information security, physical security and legal risks through 24/7 listening
- Learn what customers and stakeholders say about us and our industry
Customer Digital Assistant
Advancing our capabilities to use new technology systems and communication tools is a fundamental focus of our Customer Experience Strategy. Customers today expect more personalized products and services, and we recognize the opportunity to increase their satisfaction by making it easier for our customers to interact with us. A significant number of consumers are adopting digital assistance technology, illustrating a growing interest in the voice channel, including the use of smart home applications to handle everyday tasks.
In 2018, Indiana Michigan (I&M) Power partnered with Google and Tendril (a home energy management technology platform) to launch a new voice channel application on Google Assistant for I&M customers. We also made this application available on Amazon Alexa with a soft launch in late 2018. With this new voice/digital assistant channel, customers can more easily interact with us. They can also get answers to questions, such as “How can I save energy?” or “How much is my average bill?”
We are developing a plan to provide a common home energy management platform, complete with voice channel access. The new voice engagement channel will allow customers to access information within their home energy management platform and other AEP digital customer applications, such as the mobile app.
In the future, we plan to integrate additional features into our voice/digital assistant channel, including the ability for customers to report an outage or enroll in an AEP program or service.
Customer Mobile App
Mobile apps are popular because of their ease of use and access to self-serve options, such as online banking, shopping or bill payment. In 2017, AEP launched a mobile app to give customers tools to make it easier to do business with AEP using mobile devices. The top requests customers ask for are the ability to pay their bill, monitor their energy use and report or check on the status of an outage.
New features we added in 2018 include:
- Biometric login capability
- Proactive outage alerts and interactive outage maps
- Meter barcode scanning for outage reporting and account registration
- Ability to edit account information, including signup/cancel billing and outage alerts, edit payment accounts, view payment history and add additional electric accounts
- Access to 13-month historical energy usage data and graphs
One of the top pain points for our customers is their billing and payment experience. Our customers want simple, secure and multiple digital payment options. In 2018, we completed many projects to meet these customer expectations. We integrated our third-party credit card vendor to streamline the customer experience by removing duplicate entry of their information.
In addition, third-party fees charged to customers who use a credit card to pay their bills is another common pain point. In 2018, we reduced our customers’ credit card fee from $2.95 to $1.85 per transaction. I&M elected to eliminate the fee altogether, serving as a model for the rest of AEP in the future. Based on feedback from our business customers, we also expanded our credit card payment option to our commercial and industrial customers.
Some customers want options, such as auto- or pre-pay and monthly billing plans. Others simply want the ease of paying with their smartphone. In 2019, we will roll out a simplified auto-pay process providing an easier and faster sign-up process. Customers using the new feature can save their payment information online, expediting their transaction. We will also pilot a “flat bill” concept to some of our I&M customers.
In Oklahoma, we introduced a pre-pay program, known as Power Pay, which functions similarly to a prepaid phone card. This program offers customers of Public Service Company of Oklahoma a voluntary payment option, giving them more control over when and how they pay for their electric service.