For Energy and Utility (E&U) companies that usually have concrete contingency plans in place to offset the impact of natural disasters, the COVID-19 outbreak poses an altogether different challenge. Though it is too early to gauge the full extent of the impact, early indications prove that the demand is falling. In the U.S., grid operators have already started witnessing a reduction in usage. A recent report warns that less exposure to the Commercial and Industrial (C&I) segment of customers could translate into reduced revenues for companies. The biggest concern at this point for businesses is that there is no clarity on when things will normalize.

Based on the conversations I have had in the past few days with leaders from the E&U industry, companies are looking at battling some key challenges such as:

  • Problem of Skeletal Staffing: Businesses are compelled to operate with skeletal staffing. Companies have to function without the services of a sizable percentage of their employees (up to 40 percent). Contact centers, and finance and supply chain functions will struggle to meet business and customer needs

  • Impact on Bottom Line: As mentioned earlier, there will be a drastic slump in demand from C&I enterprises, leading to a decline in revenues for E&U companies. Simultaneously, there will be a significant rise in residential consumption (as individuals find themselves locked up at home). However, this could potentially create problems of non-payment and late payments, resulting in pressures on the bottom line and increased debts

  • Potential Credit Weakness: Excessive reliance on capital markets is risky at a time when there is increased volatility and uncertainty. If the downslide turns out to be protracted, companies could face serious financial stress

  • Customer Experience Will Take a Hit: As companies operate with reduced staffing and residential consumption increases, customer dissatisfaction will be a likely repercussion. Customer queries around payment and billing will multiply and in the absence of adequate responses, more and more customers will vent their anger and frustration on social media

So, what measures can companies take to counter the effect from these challenges? In my opinion, adopting the following measures can stem the impact:

  • Increase Digital Contact Center Footprint: Companies should augment their digital contact center operations to improve customer connect (real-time and two-way interactions) during and beyond normal hours, and drive call deflection. This encompasses effectively leveraging the tools of Web chat and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to significantly drive down costs

  • Curate Website Content: Analytics-led Website content curation can help companies increase self-service penetration. Text and sentiment analytics could be implemented to drive greater value and personalization

  • Leverage Customer Analytics: Social media management through analytics is a great way to proactively tackle customer queries and complaints. Similarly, analytics-driven support programs for vulnerable customers can help in segmentation and geo-tagging of consumers in high-risk zones

  • Offer Digital Payment Options: Digital payment options such as Google Pay and Apple Pay, and facilitating top-up payments through IVR / Web chat will significantly improve customer experience with respect to payments

  • Implement Smart Gamification Strategies: Gamification can be a valuable tool to engage with customers innovatively, inform and ensure that they make timely payments. It has already proven its efficacy in driving positive environmental impact

  • Educate Customers Digitally: Enlightening customers (via digital channels) on ways to reduce their bills will be paramount in the present scenario. E-mail blasts and social media messaging can play a great role in mass knowledge dissemination

While the external situation continues to be what it is and with a solution not in sight, E&U companies should look at building operational resilience, and leverage digital innovation and strategic collaboration to tackle challenges. This will be important both in the short run and in the long run – when global markets recover and companies have the competitive edge to survive and grow.

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