A New Normal for Power Distribution Companies: Less Face-to-Face with Customers but More Digital Engagement

In my previous blog entries, I have talked about Utilities of the 21st century, discussing how competition among energy players should flourish and how we should move to distributed energy systems. This was before the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

When I entered the power distribution business, my main priority was to provide a customer-centric service, which means ensuring stable energy supply and finding ways to help electricity rates become more affordable. 

According to an article, COVID-19: How Energy & Utility Companies Can Soften the Blow, most Energy and Utility companies usually have set contingency plans in place to address the impact of natural disasters. But no company is fully prepared for the coronavirus. And I agree since this pandemic is a new challenge in the power distribution business as we must craft strategies to ensure our customers and employee’s safety in light of the coronavirus.

The same article said that several measures must be undertaken by energy firms to address the impact of the pandemic. These measures include increasing the digital contact center footprint where companies should beef up on their customer services to allow real-time and two way interactions. Other recommended strategies are offering digital payments and leveraging social media to proactively tackle customer concerns.

Fortunately for us at the power distribution company I’m working with, we already have invested our efforts and resources in technological solutions that will make the lives of our customers easier even before COVID-19. 

In our case, before COVID-19, many customers would pay their power bills in our offices. We have recently added more payment partners. Our recent addition is Xenpay, allowing customers to pay their bills in the sari-sari stores, which minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus given that there’s a sari-sari store practically in every corner in the Philippines. We also have our digital payment channel through G-Cash. Now customers can conveniently settle their bills at the comfort of their homes.

As the article said, there’s a need to ramp up a company’s digital contact center footprint. For us, this means changing customer engagement from face-to-face interactions to social media. This is necessary given experts’ prediction that a vaccine for the coronavirus won’t be available for the next 18 to 24 months. In the meantime, distribution firms should find ways to minimize the need for our customers to go to our offices for official business.

For years now, companies are using social media to reach out to their customers more. But corporate social media accounts should do more than re-post news or carry announcements. While these are useful to customers, social media account should add more value. These days, power distributors must leverage social media more especially since studies show that people are spending more time in their social media accounts while confined at home. A Consumer Welfare Office that engages with consumers via Facebook messaging is useful.

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By this time, energy and utility firms should be working on additional digital assets to lessen face-to-face interactions with customers in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo c/o medium.com

By this time, energy and utility firms should be working on adding to their digital assets that will be utilized for mass knowledge dissemination, necessary to empower our customers. Using customer analytics to proactively identify and address customers’ concerns coursed through social media is a must these days.

Our company is working on an app that will let customers report power outages via social media, which in turn will alert our line-men in real-time, thanks to their GPS-enabled radios. This will allow our linemen to respond quickly to outages.

Relying on social media to minimize in-person interactions makes sense in this digital world. More so for the Philippines since according to a report on social media and digital trends, Filipinos spend an average of nine hours and 45 minutes online per day, making us the most active social media users around the world. This annual study by the creative agency, entitled, entitled Digital 2020, revealed that Filipinos spend an average of three hours and 53 minutes daily on social media.

The energy distribution sector is undergoing a massive transformation, thanks to technology. Before COVID-19, we were absorbed with cutting system losses, studying decentralizing power distribution systems, and technological solutions that will disrupt the sector. Now, we must also prepare for the new normal, a consumer-centric service delivery with limited personal interactions between consumers and power distribution company employees. Fortunately, we have the tools and human resources ready for digital engagement.

 

Technology Will Keep Our Employees and Consumers Safe

Since mid-March, my living room has become my office where I start work as early as 4:30 due to the Enhanced Community Quarantine  (ECQ) imposed by the government. I join millions of others around the world who had to work from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a paper published by McKinsey Digital, the demand for digital products and services has hit record levels as governments worldwide instituted lockdowns. The paper entitled “Driving digital change during a crisis: The Chief Digital Officer and COVID-19” also noted that hundreds of remote employees are now depending on collaboration tools and online processes to get work done.

I can fully appreciate the above-points as I have my tools—laptop, iPad, and smartphone— spread out in my living room. I also spend my days meeting online with colleagues who are in different areas.  Despite many of us working from home, during the ECQ, our team at Albay Power and Energy Corporation or APEC were still able to mobilize resources and distribute necessities like rice, flour, and alcohol, and protective personal equipment (PPEs) in the area. This is our company’s small way of helping Albay and its communities

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photo c/o APEC FB page

Experts predict that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to last between 18 to 24 months, which means businesses are now preparing to make remote work easier and more accessible, APEC included.

In our offices, the health and safety of our employees will be a priority. Our workspaces will be reconfigured to comply with the new social distance standards and APEC field workers will be provided with PPEs, among others.

Fortunately for us at APEC, we have already made plans for greater use of technology in our jobs since it has always been our goal to be a customer-centric organization.

Aside from the reconfiguration of our offices, our employees will be working in shifts and some of them will be working for home. They will be provided with the proper internet tools to increase their productivity. Plus, we have been preparing for the roll-out of a facial recognition software in logging in all employees for convenience purposes. Now, this technology will serve a different purpose of eliminating the need for individuals to put their fingers on the biometric machines. Soon, we will also be using a new employee app that will also do some contact tracing to ensure our employees’ safety at all times.

These measures are for our employees, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to offering excellent services to APEC customers. Our goal of improving services for APEC consumers has enabled us to lower the 22% system loss to 18% since we took over last January. The collection rate, which is integral for better service delivery has improved as well.

Improving the lives of those we serve at APEC has led us to rely on technology and data-driven solutions across all functions including accounting, collections, warehousing, procurement, finance, and engineering.

According to the paper by McKinsey, companies must re-craft digital strategies and develop a perspective of the business’ longer-term future given that “the best-performing companies have a digital strategy that’s tightly aligned with the business’s overall strategy”. The paper recommends that companies serve customers in a manner that safeguards their health, digitize interactions that used to be handled in person, and help transition customers from offline to online channels.

I am proud to say and as I mentioned, that at APEC, we meet all of the recommendations above as we have long planned for such digital transformations.

We already launched XenPay, a mechanism that allows customers to pay their electric bills in sari sari stores. We are currently reviewing our processes in payment centers as we aim to reduce the amount it takes to pay to 15 seconds per customer as we will only accommodate six people at a time.

 Soon, we will be launching an app allowing our customers to apply for meters online or via their smartphones. This will reduce the need to come to our offices. Plus, we hope to lessen the approval time from four weeks to one week for new power applications.

We are now developing a new technology that allows our personnel to read, connect, disconnect, and reconnect power remotely. We already are creating the prototype as we intend to have the technology ready by year-end.

Another app is in the works, which is intended for our customers to report outages via Facebook and other social media. Our linemen have been equipped with GPS-enabled radios that let the control center identify their location, allowing our linemen to respond to outages faster.

We have drones, too for monitoring, reducing the need for personnel to go out. The use of Artificial Intelligence in monitoring vegetation that causes outages is currently being explored with the help of our IT partner. Plus, we are working with different technology providers to enable APEC to implement more remote payment mechanisms and remote dispatch of embedded solar power.

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photo c/o APEC FB page

The novel coronavirus is forcing businesses to re-think their ways to adapt to the new normal. Thankfully, we have invested in programs that meet the demands of better power service delivery to consumers long before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and even before lockdowns happened. Little did we know, that these which were designed to bring APEC to the 21st century are the very same technological tools that will help keep both our employees and customers safe during these uncertain times.