In today's world, with the internet revolution, customers anticipate everything to be executed real time at their door step. This in fact has posed a challenge for diverse business entities ranging from Banking to Retail to Utility sectors to serve customer's needs in the most effective manner real time. In line with the ever growing expectation where pace of customer demand has to be supplemented with quality supply, companies have started leveraging E-commerce (electronic commerce) as a tool to expand their business through promoting current offerings, conducting secured business transactions online in the most cost effective manner, leading to reduced customer visits and call generations to their call centers.
E-commerce is the sales part of e-business. E-commerce provides a platform to people who can educate themselves about an offering or product, its features, availability etc. enabling the customers to make a wise decision at the end. In-line with other sectors, utility sector is also no exception to the current trend.
Recent reforms in the utility industry, regulatory mandates, ever increasing customer demand and technology enabled business transformation has gradually forced the utility companies to give considerable thought and effort about adopting the e-commerce route. Unlike in retail space where customers are brought attention to purchase products of their interest and need by promoting in multiple ways, in utility space the intent has two folds:
- Conserve energy and manage demand by offering energy efficiency programs.
- Offer service to customers as a commoditized product.
With commoditization of electricity, utility industry has independent generation, transmission and distribution segments. Generation of energy enterprises selling energy through the market whereas transmission and distribution of energy acquire profits through making the energy reach to the consumers' doorstep. In this entire business process, E-commerce can be applied from top to bottom starting from energy trading to offering services to the customers real time. In this article the focus has been limited to e-commerce features for a smart utility from an end customer self-service perspective.
E-Commerce in Utility Context
Typical Utility requirements and e-commerce features has been explained below from customer self-service standpoint.
User Account and Profile management : Creation of user accounts based on predefined user roles will govern what a user is allowed in the system. Roles can be assigned to users and organizational entities. Any data that is part of the profile can be used as part of the personalization of the site. For example, business users can create customer segments based on attributes available in the customer profile. E.g Create a segment of all customers with agricultural pumps or solar panels. Relevant product recommendations, promotional offerings or ad can be targeted to this segment by the business users.
Manage Customer Account Information and Registration : Customer registration is the most critical step in providing an enduring valued service to the customer in the long run. This process has to be secured, efficient and robust that maximizes the opportunity to collect information from the customer and build a useful and informative customer profile. This account information and profile created after registration will drive further user experience through an optimized navigation to online services and offerings most relevant to customers.
Customer or User Segmentation : Customer segments to be created based on the yearly income, credit history, appliances they own, usage pattern, enrolled programs, any static attributes like business type, address, demographic data etc. This will help understand the intelligence about customers' area of interest with utility along with web browsing patterns, there-by dynamically serving content in designated areas (e-marketing spots), enabling relevant site entry points leading them to the desired destination.
Workflow and Business Rules Configuration Management : This capability is at the core of e-commerce to provide personalized user experience through helping define, configure and manage which products and programs are available to which customers. In Utility offers a number of energy efficiency programs to customers help saving energy and cost. It promotes participation in several demand reduction events to get incentives and credits. Similarly online transaction abilities like online billing, online payment etc. Identifying program eligibility, personalized user experience etc. can be easily managed by business users using the robust workflow and business rule configuration management system provided by e-commerce.
Product and Catalog Management : In Utility world, 'Product' is virtual, such as a 'Product' can be considered as an equivalent of a 'Program' offered by the utility where customer can participate to enjoy the discount. Product and Catalog Management system helps utilities to publish its current rates, programs, offerings, services by building master catalog with as many categories. These can be flexibly defined, grouped and published to the customer based on customer's eligibility and as per the need. E.g. Rate and program options will be shown differently for a commercial customer and residential customer based on their eligibility.
Bundle Management : Through bundle management, customers can see a collection of individual catalog entries which will enable them to transact with a single click. In a Utility context the e-commerce platform's Bundle Management can be leveraged to allow customers to create their own collection and get served as a package. E.g. a low-income customer may qualify for an income-based bundle, but would also like to add an option for the time of use (TOU) based discount program which is available as an individual product for all customers. E-commerce platform needs to enable business users to define the business rules and parameters which limit which products may be bundled based on the eligibility guidelines.
Program (Product) Enrollment : This process is a core feature of e-commerce. Customers can be provided a number of ways to help browse the catalog, locate the necessary offering or services or instead guide/lead them to discover the relevant items from the catalog. Customer can be able to complete the transaction once the catalog entities have been chosen. Utilities can leverage to offer a variety of programs geared toward efficient energy conservation, and customers must enroll these program in order to take benefit from those. In commerce like platform the flow would be:
- Selection of a program or rate to the 'shopping cart'.
- User Authentication through logging in.
- Eligibility check based on user profile.
- Provide relevant further recommendations applicable to user.
- Order process generating a service order or work order and confirmation.
- Status tracking.
Dynamic targeted Ad Management : Ad content of various types (text, image, Flash, Silverlight etc.) can be managed and displayed. Business users should have an easy-to-use interface/tool for the creation of ad and other promotional content for designated e-marketing spots. Various customer attributes based on user's profile, can be used to target to who an advertisement will be delivered.
Cross-Selling and Up-Selling : In e-commerce merchandising relationships between products can be defined. Promotional content can be served based on customer profile within a context of a customer business transaction. Rule-based personalization needs to leverage the intelligence and understanding of the targeted customers i.e. segmentation, usage consumption, customer profile, website visit pattern etc. E.g. Show promotional content to promote Online Billing Enrollment when a customer requests for Move In. Similarly, when customer enrolls for new service, special applicable rate programs can be shown to the customers.
Alerts and Notifications : Almost all e-commerce products have a robust messaging system to support both inbound and outbound messaging types. It allows control in the manner in which administrators, customers, back-end and fulfillment center systems are notified of various events, such as customer orders, system errors or other events. In Utility customer alerts and notifications plays very important role in the event of outages, energy conservation events, online services like successful payment transactions, when bill is ready/available, upon successful enrollment/de-enrollments etc. Customers should be notified proactively for various offerings and events impacting their business or transaction with the utility.
Remote Assistance (Web Collaboration, Virtual Guide, Help, FAQ) and Easy Contact Mechanism : Ability of customers to contact customer service support through email, chat, remote assistance (co-browsing) etc. E-commerce products can be integrated with external communication agents/products sharing the session data securely. Customers should be provided with guided help as well as index based FAQ to lead them to the solution without any hiccups.
Content Management and Site Mapping (Navigability) : E-commerce allows creating and managing multiple content types required for the site like Catalog Content, Editorial Content, and Web Content etc. In a Utility it's important to show relevant contents in right place like Program Offerings, Visual Contents for Safety, Home Energy Efficiency measures, Policies, Educating customers about Green Energy etc. Each of the content presented to the customers need to be relevant with effective value addition to both the utility and customer.
In the coming days, E-commerce will be the backbone for each and every transaction that a utility company will make with its consumers (B2C) or business entities (B2B). With the anticipated growth of online users, demand for a new level of sophistication in web functionality, ever growing demand for responsiveness and high availability, E-commerce will provide an effective and efficient platform that can support industry's goals as well as sustain projected future growth. It will also provide both a technology and business platform that can scale to meet increasing growth, provides key, core self-service functionality in-line with future endeavors to create a compelling online experience. It will also harness maximum benefit from several recent technology enabled business transformation programs such as 'Smart Grid', 'Dynamic Pricing' etc. Overall it will bring both utilities and consumers together to a single platform where outcome of the various initiatives like energy efficiency program, demand response program etc. will be far more effective leading to energy and cost saving for both customers and utility companies and finally saving the earth.