How Energy Companies Provide Round-the-Clock Customer Care

SAP partner DSC has developed a solution that communicates directly with SAP for Utilities. Sascha Dobiasch, member of DSC’s extended management board and responsible for the project, spoke about the benefits, acceptance, and limitations of automated voice dialog systems.

Mr. Dobiasch, how does an automated voice dialog system actually work?

In fact, the name says it all. The caller engages in a dialog with the system using the spoken word. But there’s a difference between high-end applications and applications that simply process numbers entered by phone or spoken. Innovative voice portals use free dialog systems that can be flexibly configured.

Such portals interact with other systems and with people using various interfaces and media.

With a voice portal, naturally spoken partially or fully automated dialogs can be conducted. What the caller says is recognized and interpreted using a previously defined vocabulary. If the caller says, “I’d like to enter my meter reading,” he or she will be taken straight to the relevant menu.

Of course, numbers can also be interpreted and processed.

What’s special about the system you developed together with Sikom Software?

Such systems are often just used to prequalify the reason for calling and to identify the caller. Our solution goes a significant step further: The external voice dialog system communicates directly with SAP for Utilities.

It verifies the information given in real time and also saves the data directly in the SAP solution. Furthermore, data that is already known about the caller is available across systems. The customer service representative can then personally speak to the caller without that caller having to give all the information again.

What technical infrastructure do energy companies need to be able to deploy your voice dialog system?

They need to use the SAP NetWeaver technology platform, and the telephone infrastructure plays a role, too. However, the Sikom voice portal is not dependent on particular hardware; it uses this telephone infrastructure instead. ISDN systems or IP telephony solutions are both supported. The number of available channels is important though, so that the system doesn’t reach its technical limits if the center is inundated with calls.

The connection with SAP for Utilities is realized using the communication interfaces that are available as standard in SAP NetWeaver. These interfaces enable bi-directional real-time communication using Web services between the SAP solution and Sikom’s voice portal. Additional middleware isn’t required – in other words, there’s no need for a distribution platform.

Because we already provide many processes for energy company customer services as a template, the implementation and individual adjustment of the voice dialog system takes between only six and twelve weeks.

How do the energy companies, their employees, and their customers benefit from the voice dialog system?

Energy companies reduce their internal and – above all – external call center costs, while at the same time improving service quality. As a result, they strengthen their competitiveness and increase customer retention.

Sascha Dobiasch, DSC

The burden on call center agents is eased, especially at times when the phone lines run hot, for example, after invoices have been sent or if rates have changed, enabling employees to concentrate on other tasks, such as acquiring new customers or providing more detailed advice.

Finally, end customers aren’t dependent on the call center’s availability and capacity, but can instead get the task done immediately whenever they choose. The system enables all calls to be dealt with right away, which is especially useful when many people are calling. Putting people on hold or busy lines – which result in annoyed customers – are a thing of the past.

But despite all the advantages: What is acceptance among users like? After all, communicating exclusively with a machine means that the personal element gets lost.

Our experience shows that the success of a voice dialog system depends to a large extent on how well the users – including both customers and employees – are informed about the new technology and familiarized with it. That’s why employees should be actively involved as part of change management.

They then don’t see the voice service as an unsettling change, but rather as an enrichment for their own work. Customers should be informed about the new service and its advantages well in advance – for example, through a customer magazine. In addition, possible concerns can be addressed in personal discussions.

A voice dialog system can’t replace people altogether. It also has its limitations – for example, if processes become too complex or dialogs become too extensive. But wherever routine tasks have to be performed, a voice dialog system that communicates directly with the back-end system improves processes considerably.

Are you planning any further development based on your voice dialog system?

We’re always willing to listen to what our customers need. For instance, we’re currently looking at new services for changing rates by phone and charging prepayment meters. With such electricity meters, a certain amount of energy can be released using a chip card or chip key, or by entering a PIN.

What’s more, we’re working on extending the standard functionalities in SAP Customer Relationship Management 7.0. The goal is to display the customer data received using the voice dialog system directly in the SAP solution when the call is forwarded to the call center agent.