Getting a Customer View

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 11-11-2009

You'd think that if any industry could skate by with poor customer marks, it would almost certainly be a franchised utility. But at Avista Corp., an integrated gas and electric provider serving approximately 480,000 customers in the Pacific Northwest, a focus on excellence has helped the company capture service awards and distinguish itself as a best-practice business.

See Also: Keeping the Customer Satisfied

In 2007, Avista CEO Scott Morris decided that the company had to build a better reputation. Web pages were dull, service levels were lackluster, and customer ratings didn't always measure up. "We recognized that customers needed an interactive, multidimensional experience," says CIO Jim Kensok.

Avista took aim at marketing, customer service and IT issues. The first step was to rebrand the company, revamp the Web site, and change the customer tone for credit and collections. "In the past, the process was cold and sterile; there were set policies and procedures," Kensok says. Instead, the company adopted a policy of examining individual accounts and allowing for exceptions based on needs and circumstances--particularly for good customers coping with a cash crunch.

About half of Avista's call center transactions revolve around credit and collections. The initiative slashed transaction volume by approximately 8.5 percent while trimming five full-time equivalent positions. Moreover, the system eliminates the embarrassment that financially strapped customers may experience when talking to call center agents. "They went from having a miserable experience to having a positive experience," Kensok explains.

The utility didn't stop there. It introduced new search-engine functionality to simplify navigation and information retrieval, and focused on reducing clicks as customers navigated through the site. Using service-oriented architecture (SOA) tools, Kensok built a platform that made it easier to roll out a consistent experience across multiple channels, including the Web, an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system and the call center. "[Whether] customers contact us via voice or the Web, they get the same experience, including brand and tone," he points out.

Kensok tweaked a number of other processes, too. For example, in the past, customers had to resubmit checking account information every time they paid a bill online. Customers indicated via surveys and market research that the system was frustrating. Consequently, Avista changed service providers and redesigned the function to save the data for individual customers. The company's ratings for bill presentment and payment jumped by 6 percent during the first half of 2009, Kensok says.

Finally, Avista tapped into analytics software to determine when and where customers were becoming frustrated and bailing out of the IVR. It used this data to modify and streamline scripts. Avista also made it simple to reach a human through touch-tone or voice prompts. "We decided that there was no gain in hiding the prompt," Kensok says. "These are often cases where a problem is escalating or needs immediate attention."

It's a winning approach. Avista captured the 2009 E Source award for "The Best Electric and Natural Gas Web Site in the Western U.S." Kensok has also turned to Twitter to address customer comments and complaints, and he plans to introduce blogs.

"There is a fine line between balancing technology costs with customer satisfaction. It's a huge and ongoing challenge," Kensok says. "But we have decided that we will always err on the side of speed and value for the customer."