Gas and electricity supplier Npower has implemented Apple Business Chat as a new tool in its customer service kit, to help its customers switch over to Smart meters.
The installation is being provided through IMImobile, a London-based cloud communications software and services provider that aims to improve and automate customer experience and engagement through mobility.
Using its proprietary cloud software platform, it claims to manage more than 42 billion messages and 44 billion commerce transactions every year, with clients including all four of the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs), the AA, property firm Foxtons, and restaurant chain Pizza Hut.
Although it must be acknowledged that the troubled smart meter transition process has seen much controversy over the past five years, Npower clearly cannot take responsibility for the UK government’s tendency to waste millions of pounds on IT projects that don’t go according to plan or fail completely.
Rather, says Jon Drinkwater, head of digital and data at Npower, the company maintains a tight focus on those aspects of the smart meter roll-out that it can manage and account for.
A big part of its engagement with IMImobile is communicating the anticipated benefits of smart meters to customers, and helping “make smart as accessible to customers as possible”.
“There are several elements to that,” says Drinkwater. “Firstly in helping users to understand the process of switching, and the benefits, and then, inevitably, given the challenge of a roll-out this size, there will be questions. Our digital channels give customers a way to get in touch with us so we can answer those questions.”
Communicating with its customers through digital channels has become hugely important to Npower, says Drinkwater. “Like everybody else, we are looking at how to make ourselves more efficient and make things easier for customers, and with mass utilisation of digital, that is something we now need to be at the forefront of,” he says.
Follow the users
But why incorporate a device-specific communication channel? Despite the advances made by Android devices, and thanks in part to the lingering effects of Apple’s advantage in being first to market with a smartphone in the UK, iPhones remain hugely popular among users in this country.
“Generally, we’re looking at messaging on a significant scale,” says Drinkwater. “Given smart meters are in the public eye at the moment, and we have our comms channels set up to manage that, it felt appropriate to use, given the size of the Apple user base, to open that channel up as a primary one.
“It’s an opportunity to give customers another way to get in touch with us about smart meters, and engage with us.”
Drinkwater says it was important for Npower to exist in the same digital ecosystems in which its consumer customers dwell, so Apple Business Chat is joining platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where the provider already engages with users. He adds that by offering as big a breadth of services as possible, he can make his offering more inclusive.
“Mobile devices are, by some margin, the device of choice to access our services now, and mobility is the key strategic element here,” says Drinkwater.
“When you look towards mobile and messaging generally, they are a marriage made in heaven. Using a device people are used to and engaging with already allows them to communicate with us on a device they are familiar with.”
‘Nothing stopping us’
In other words, adding Apple Business Chat to the kitbag was not in direct response to a challenge or problem within the business, merely recognition that diversity of contact options was a good thing for customers. “Nothing was really stopping us,” says Drinkwater.
“Ultimately, we arrived at IMImobile through a competitive tender process looking at a number of suppliers, but three things made up the decision we ultimately took.
“Firstly, we’d been in the web chat game for a few years but wanted to take our service beyond that, recognising the varied messaging channels that over 60% of the UK population is engaged with. IMImobile does have web chat in there – which was a tick in their box.
“The second point was we needed integrated capabilities with the messaging platforms we’re interested in – Apple Business Chat being one of those – and being a launch partner for that technology was really important to us, given the size of our customer base using iPhones.
“Thirdly, the integration of communication capabilities more broadly, such as Google [Hangouts] or WhatsApp.”
Ultimately, says Drinkwater, the shift to IMImobile’s platform was driven by the possibilities around automation, with the ability to use machine learning and chatbots overlaid on the Apple channel.
In this way, he says, customers can get answers to their questions about smart meters more quickly and easily using self-service options for the most common queries, but escalating to humans if asked, or if the system recognises the need for it.
How it’s used
To begin with, Npower is using Apple for standard conversational interactions around the smart meter topic. Users can navigate to the smart meter section of the provider’s website and, by interacting with the Apple Business Chat logo, can initiate an interaction with staff to facilitate general questions about smart meters, or assist with booking or changing an installation
“The levels of satisfaction we’ve received have been high and are exceeding expectations,” says Drinkwater. “It’s being used in line with the volumes we expected at this early stage. We’re at a point where we’ve collected a lot of early information to decide what to do next.”
As part of the deployment, Npower and IMImobile have enabled the use of emoji icons in post-chat surveys triggered by customer service agents, with the idea that this might serve to increase the number of people who actually respond to these.
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Drinkwater acknowledges that emojis can be a contentious issue for many consumer-facing firms – particularly those with a core role in the daily lives of their users, such as utilities – but adds that companies do need to decide whether to use them from a branding perspective.
“We think emojis are useful tools to demonstrate engagement on messages,” he says. “They can easily show customer satisfaction, engagement and personality.
“For us as a brand, it was important to have a human element and more direct engagement. Emojis are a growing part of how people interact through messaging, and there’s no reason why they can’t be used appropriately, which is important because there is obviously a time and a place for them.
“They are there if customers want to use them. If not, that’s fine.”
For now, Npower has not enabled all the possible functionality available, although Drinkwater says this is very much on the cards, subject to how Apple Business Chat performs in the business.
“We are interested in authentication and things you would need verification to do,” he says. “Apple Pay could obviously become available – all of that is in the mix depending on how it grows.”
End of voice? Not likely
Looking to the future, Drinkwater envisages the ability to make communications more seamless in the interests of simplifying Npower’s customer relationships will go further still. But that is not to say that voice interaction will die out completely, he notes.
A substantial volume of the organisation’s transactions can already be handled through self-service, and as people become more comfortable with interacting in that way and the underlying technology becomes more AI-driven, Drinkwater predicts that Npower will see a significant volume of human contact ebb away.
“At that point, we can reinvest those people in additional value-add services for customers,” he says. “There will, after all, always be a need for our customers to interact with humans in some complex situations, whether or not voice forms a part of that.”