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Four key elements of a self-service portal for utility customers

What is a self-service portal?

As per WiKi, a self-service software allows people to secure answers to their inquiries and needs in an automated way instead of traditional search approaches or calling customer support.

However, our definition of self-service portal differs – “A self-service portal is a website, an app or a channel, consisting of self-service and self-help functions, that enable and empower the consumer to request services, find information, and register and resolve issues with minimal help. A self-service portal can be thought of as the ‘electronic front door’ to any organization, from which the consumer can obtain products and services”

Why do we need a  self-service portal?

According to a Veriday blog post 

  • 90% of consumers expect an organization to offer a self-service portal or channel.
  • 73% of consumers want the ability to solve product or service issues on their own. 
  • 91% of survey respondents said they would use an online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs.

As the energy and utility market becomes increasingly deregulated, companies must improve customer service and support to remain competitive. According to the Washington Post, nearly 500,000 consumers – more than 11 percent of ratepayers – chose to leave their energy company when Pennsylvania deregulated utilities in 1998.

A self-service portal can help to address these challenges. To know more about it read this interesting article  “Customer Expectations”.

Our experience

Our experience stems from building self-service portals for our partners and customers. They were confronted with several challenges like meeting customer expectations and increasing the cost of recovering payment(bills) from consumers, to name a few.  Also, the customer support center saw an ever-increasing volume of support calls and had become a new cost center. We built a quick prototype collaborating with our partners to demonstrate the capabilities of the self-service portal by keeping customer needs front and center. After the prototype, development of a full-fledged self-service portal and ancillary apps was commissioned.

In this blog, I want to share the four key elements which I think any product owner should keep in mind while developing a self-service portal solution.

Key Requirement #1 – Request logs and notifications

A quick analysis of the previous support and complaint register helped us to take note of consumer needs. For example, they wanted

  • to file a request / complain and know it’s status
  • to get an advance notification for a “service outages”
  • to access “history of consumption and billing pattern” etc.

The analysis helped us to include these key requirements. We have provided a facility for consumers:

  • to log a request
  • to know the progress of the request
  • to send a reminder of the incomplete request

Also, the requirement includes a need for an administrator to send a notification for the service outage. The notification facility is then extended to send out notifications to the field executives.

Key Requirement #2 – Ability to access historical data

Consumers like to access consumption data and billing patterns. To have access to historical data, one needs to build an interface with the existing ERP.  It is advisable to build is as the read-only access interface with caching.  What I mean by this is that we were reading data from the ERP system, but we are not updating or writing data back directly to the ERP database. This approach keeps the sanctity of the ERP’s data.

Key Requirement #3 – Ability to pay bills online

One of the key issues for consumers is to know their bill payment status, as most preferred to pay online. Knowing the preference, we built an interface with the payment gateway that allowed consumers to pay bills via their bank account(s) or by using their credit or a debit card.

Key requirement 4 – Security – Data is motion and storage

We implemented multilevel security to protect data in motion and in storage based on industry best practice and standard. The portal access was permitted using transport layer security and hosted on SOC2 or SOC3 certified hosting site.

Outcome and Results

After releasing the portal the client/partner observed substantial (@40%) reduction in the call center’s call. The payment history improved. Almost 20% of consumers started paying before-or-on the due date.