Telecommunications suppliers spend an inordinate amount of time and money these days getting their websites just right, not only to attract customers but also to keep them updated. eBilling has been a critical component of the customer offering for years, but it seems that utility companies are just starting to catch up.

Two recent reports, focused on the North American utility market, highlight the customer expectation differences when the primary use for utility websites is related to billing and payments. E Source has released results from its study that benchmarked utility websites from a business customer perspective. It found that viewing the current bill, checking the account balance, viewing payment and billing options, and paying the bill were the most highly demanded features.

It would appear that looking for better tariffs, filing complaints or checking service outages don’t rate. Maybe it’s because of a lack of competition in the sector or the features just aren’t important enough or in demand. A similar J.D. Power survey from August had much the same results, that “utility websites do well providing their customers with a satisfying online experience when it comes to reviewing account information online and scheduling payments. However, new or more complex functions like setting up an online account, researching energy-saving information and updating utility service are among the most difficult for customers to understand.”

FierceEnergy, quoting the report, stated that, “utility customers may have been spoiled by their experiences with other providers such as financial, television and cable, or mobile companies where historical data is readily available and access to real-time data is likely. Being unable to perform tasks on their utility’s website is frustrating and will discourage customers from returning.” It seems that utilities are a little backward in understanding that the better the functionality of their websites the less strain is placed on their call centers, something telcos learned years ago.

It begs the question why utilities are not moving faster to provide more online capabilities to their customers. Is it the cost, the complexity or is it just that they don’t feel the need? Certainly in deregulated markets, where competition between utility suppliers is ferocious, e.g. the UK, customer experience is starting to play a key role in market success, but it seems to be taking a long time to sink in elsewhere.

There is definitely a different historic mindset in the utilities industry. For a start, the key billing entity is the service delivery point, not the person or company paying the bill and systems were geared around this. It is my understanding that merging or integrating multiple properties has always been a bit of a challenge, and the concept of feeding excess electricity, for example, back into the grid from home generation, is really stretching the technology limits for many.

No doubt, smart meters, smart grids and remote home energy management systems will be pushing utility legacy systems over the edge, and probably explains why so many telecom suppliers are rushing to provide the products an expertise into the space. It will only be when all our telecom, energy and utilities needs, plus wastage can be viewed through one portal that we will be able to determine how effective we are in controlling our impact on the environment. I suggest it won’t be long before we will be taxed on our own ‘carbon footprint’ or ‘environmental impact,’ but judging from these report findings, we may have to drag utilities kicking and screaming into the future.

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 5 November, 2012