Virtual Assistants in the Utilities sector

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Digital transformation has profoundly changed the way companies relate to their customers. In this new era, consumer experience has become a central element of business. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has a well-known phrase that illustrates the importance given by modern companies to customer relationships: 

“We see our customers invited to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”Jeff Bezos 

Some companies (such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, among others) not only adopted this concept but helped create this trend and had one of its allies in building successful businesses. For Utilities companies operating on a more traditional business model, the focus on consumer experience has become part of the agenda of their executives only more recently. 

Recent changes in the Utilities sector, such as the opening of the business model for the entry of new players, greater competition for service offerings, the appeal of themes such as conservation of the environment and energy efficiency are some of the factors that have led companies of the Utilities sector to begin their path of digital transformation, adopting, among other measures, new strategies of relationship with customers. 

To meet the demands of the digital consumer, many of these companies have created self-service channels through smartphone websites and applications. A consumer who wishes to record the occurrence of a lack of service, take a question about their energy bill, or obtain some other information, can solve the problem directly through their computer or smartphone. From a business perspective, the digitization of service channels can improve customer satisfaction and engagement, and reduce costs with self-service. 

Virtual Assistants, which have become known to the general public through their variants for smartphones and electronic devices (such as Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana ), enable new forms of interaction that can take the Utilities consumer experience to a new level. 

Virtual Assistants 

In general, virtual assistants are software agents who can perform tasks or services for an individual. User interaction with these wizards can be through text interfaces (in this case they are often called “chatbots”) or even through voice. Virtual assistants are able to interpret human language using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to assist users or automate tasks. 

These software agents have been shipped in electronics such as smartphones (such as Siri and Google Assistant) and Smart Speakers (such as Amazon Echo or Google Home). These products are often referred to as Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs). The technology can also be integrated into organizational customer service software systems, in which case they are called Virtual Customer Assistants (VCAs). 

Virtual Assistant to the Consumer 

The VCAs allow consumers to access the company’s service channels using text and / or voice interfaces. So, instead of having to navigate the menus of websites or applications, the client can simply ask questions or request actions from the virtual assistant. The wizard will interpret the customer’s message and use their knowledge base and artificial intelligence algorithms to respond to the client as accurately as possible. 

In addition to simplifying customer life, VCAs can bring greater efficiency and savings in customer service processes. According to a Gartner survey, organizations reported a reduction of up to 70% in calls via telephone calls, email or chat through the implementation of VCAs. They also reported an increase in customer satisfaction and a 33% savings in voice calls. According to the research, by 2020, 25% of customer support operations will be done through VCAs. 

Virtual Personal Assistants 

Unlike VCAs, VPAs are not primarily about customer service; however, the success of sales of consumer electronics and smartphones that have embedded technology can make VPAs an important channel for customer relationships. 

The installed base of virtual assistants already reaches quite impressive numbers: Google Assistant has exceeded the mark of 1 billion devices; Apple’s Siri 500 million; Microsoft Cortana 400 million and Amazon Alexa 100 million units. 

VPAs allow users to view news and information (such as weather, traffic conditions, or game results), play a song or video streaming service, set the alarm or a timer, make a call or send a message to someone else. In addition to these basic functionalities, VPAs also offer the possibility of expansion and integration with web services and IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which can and are being used by third parties to integrate their products and services with virtual personal assistants. 

For example, home appliance manufacturers (or even simpler products such as light bulbs and security cameras) are integrating their products with personal virtual assistants on the market, enabling users to interact and control their home using voice interface. Thus, VPAs should not only boost the concept of smart home, where devices are interconnected, but also occupy a prominent position in this scenario. 

The popularization of VPAs in residences represents the opportunity for new mechanisms of relationship with the consumers of Utilities. Consumers can use this new interface to query information, make service requests, pay bills, and other tasks. Utilities companies can also promote the integration of these devices with smart meters, enabling users to manage energy more simply. Integration with home appliances and other home appliances can also assist in engaging consumers in energy efficiency programs. 

In the coming years we will see a growth in the adoption of solutions based on VCAs in the Utilities sector and, to the extent that VPA-supported devices become more common in Brazil, it will be fundamental that companies in the sector incorporate these devices into their relationship strategy with the consumer. 

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