Tips for Providing a Stellar Customer Experience on the Web and IVR

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Tips for Providing a Stellar Customer Experience on the Web and IVR

Published: September 21, 2011
Stephanie Spalding and Sarah Fiebiger

Could the following comments be about your company’s website or interactive voice response system (IVR)?

  • “Overall it was a frustrating experience”
  • “This was just too many steps and kind of annoying”
  • “I thought it was clever and fun”

These are just a few of the sentiments offered by residential customers about their experiences with utility websites and IVRs. Every two years, we conduct two large benchmark studies to evaluate utility websites and IVRs, capturing the voice of the customer for our members. The results of both studies for 2011 were recently released, and we wanted to share a few highlights from our key findings.

First and foremost, customer expectations continue to rise, which means continuous improvement by utilities is paramount. Utility websites are facing several new challenges. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers own a smartphone, and with mobile web browsing on the rise, utilities should consider optimizing their websites for smaller devices. Additionally, social media sites are becoming an important communication channel, and utilities are figuring out how to effectively leverage them. However, some challenges are not new: Utilities are still struggling with how to provide customers with an analysis of their energy use and enable them to pay their bill online.

The keys to creating a positive experience for customers who call their utility include giving callers choices—including whether to use the IVR at all—and providing clarity around menu options, navigation, and messaging. It’s all about making your IVR easy to use.

Website Benchmark Findings

The bar is still rising. The utility industry as a whole is making strides to better serve the needs of its residential customers online. In 2009, a score in the low 700s on our 1,000-point scale placed a utility in the top half of the first quartile in the rankings. In 2011, the same scores placed a utility almost a full quartile lower. We don’t expect customers to become any less savvy in the future, so continual improvement is a must.

Don’t neglect mobile users. We first included mobile reviews in our 2009 study, and this year we expanded our mobile research to 11 features and more devices, using a BlackBerry Curve, an iPad, an iPod Touch, and a Sanyo Zio (with an Android operating system). Surprisingly, there was little difference in the average usability scores of features reviewed on a desktop computer versus a mobile device, but we don’t expect this to be true in the future. At least 29 utilities now offer mobile-optimized sites, compared to 16 just one year ago.

If you don’t already have a mobile site, check your web analytics to see if one is warranted. You may find—as some utilities have—that more than 50 percent of Contact Us page visits are from a mobile device and between 20 to 25 percent of web visits are from mobile devices during major outages.

Utilities are using social media. Links to social media sites are one of the most prominent additions to utility websites since our last review; 43 percent of the websites reviewed included icons to social media sites on the home page. Although we didn’t specifically ask our reviewers to comment on social media, they appreciated seeing these links and noted that those utilities appeared to be forward-thinking and “with the times.”

There’s room for improvement. A disappointing finding is that utilities seem to make it difficult for customers to view an analysis of their energy use and to pay their bill online. My Energy Use and Online Payment had the lowest average usability scores. It confounds us that customers want to pay their bill online but energy companies are making it difficult to do so. To make online payment easy, we suggest:

  • Allowing customers to pay their bill online without registering or logging in, without having to sign up for paperless billing, and without charging them a fee
  • Providing a variety of payment options, including by credit card, debit card, or checking account, and allowing one-time or recurring payments
  • Enabling customers to store their payment information for ease of use in the future, preferably after they’ve conducted their transaction

IVR Benchmark Findings

Choice. Residential customers love having choices when calling their utility’s IVR. Callers particularly appreciate the following options we found on some IVRs:

  • Giving callers the choice of whether to use the automated system or be sent directly to a customer service representative (CSR) at the beginning of the call
  • Providing the option to listen to additional messages or more information about a program instead of forcing all callers to listen to those messages
  • Offering callers more than one way to authenticate their account, such as by account number, telephone number, or street address

Clarity. Callers appreciate IVRs that provide clear menu options, navigation paths, and messages. Otherwise, callers get confused and become annoyed. These best practices are important to keep in mind for your IVR:

  • Use concise, clear wording for menu options and keep options distinctly different
  • Organize the menu logically
  • Use high-quality voice recordings and avoid computerized voices when possible

Ease of use. IVRs have historically been difficult to use, which has trained callers to immediately seek the option to speak with a live person. However, a utility can change that caller perception by:

  • Providing consistent and relevant navigation options at the end of every menu and task
  • Making the option to speak to a CSR easily accessible throughout the IVR’s menus
  • Waiting until callers have reached the option that will allow them to actually perform a task on the IVR before asking them to authenticate

We encourage utilities to take a close look at their websites and IVRs to ensure that they’re following these best practices and providing the best customer experience possible. E Source individual company website and IVR assessments can help identify areas for improvement. For more information, contact Rich Goodwin or call him at 303-345-9156.

About the Authors

Stephanie Spalding

Stephanie Spalding (@ESourceSteph) focuses her research on energy-efficiency programs, social media, marketing, customer care and communications, and e-business topics. Earlier in her career, Stephanie was a marketing analyst at D&R International, specializing in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star program for windows, doors, and skylights. She holds a BS in business administration with a concentration in marketing from the University of Delaware and is currently pursuing an MBA from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Sarah Fiebiger

Sarah Fiebiger (@ESourceSarah) primarily focuses on issues related to utility customer care, business account management, the customer-facing side of intelligent grid, and e-business. Sarah researches and responds to Member Inquiries and does research and writing for reports on hot-topic issues in these areas. She has an extensive background in customer service and management and has also worked as a high-definition editor and videographer. She holds a BFA from the University of Colorado at Denver in theatre, film, and television with emphasis in directing and scriptwriting and an MBA that she received from the University of Colorado at Denver’s highly intensive accelerated program.

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