Q&A: Improving the Customer Experience with Software & Tech

customer service rating on cell phone

Sheila Kee
Kee

One of the technology trends that is so frequently talked about in the water utility sector is unlocking new data about system performance and using it to further enhance operations. But improving operations is only part of the job, and providing excellent customer service is also at the top of the priority list.

Water Finance & Management recently spoke with Sheila Kee, senior product manager for water operations management at Itron. Kee has more than 20 years of experience in the water and technology sectors and experience in solution marketing, product management and strategic planning. We asked her about new tech trends, AMI, conservation and what is being done industrywide to optimize customer service when it comes to water usage and billing.

The rise of the IoT has brought about significant advancements in the way utilities manage and distribute water. Utilities are using IoT-enabled smart water meters and sensors to collect and analyze the data. This information can be used to improve operational efficiency, reduce water losses and provide more details to customers about their water usage. Utilities are also enhancing the customer experience through customer engagement platforms to connect with their customers about water savings, billing and other matters. Overall, utilities are far more sophisticated in their use of software and technology now than they were ten years ago.

Kee: There is a growing emphasis on data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for mining data and extracting actionable insights from the vast amount of data collected from AMI systems. Utility customers are looking for ways to maximize their investments by increasing the scope of what AMI can provide to them above and beyond meters to cash.

Kee: Real-time data has changed the way that utilities manage their water systems. It has enabled utilities to improve their efficiency, reliability and sustainability in many ways. By providing utilities with near real-time data on water usage, pressure and quality, real-time data has helped utilities go from being reactive to proactive.

For example, near real-time data can be used to detect leaks more quickly and accurately, monitor water pressure levels throughout the distribution system and monitor key water quality parameters. Some utilities are using that data to identify and repair leaks within hours of them occurring, rather than days or weeks. This information can be used to reduce water loss, save money, identify and address potential problems with pressure or breaks and ensure that the utility is able to maintain a high level of reliability in its supply.

In addition to these specific areas, real-time data can also be used to improve other aspects of water system operations, such as asset management, energy efficiency and customer service. For example, real-time data can be used to track the condition of water system assets and develop predictive maintenance schedules, monitor and optimize energy consumption and provide customers with information about their water usage and potential problems that could arise.

Overall, the ability to collect near real-time data has had a big impact on the water industry. Utilities that are able to effectively use real-time data are better positioned to improve their efficiency, reliability, sustainability and customer service.

Kee: AMI can be used to share more accurate meter reads and generate bills instantly, enabling utilities to adjust billing to more frequent billing cycles without increasing staff. Customers can then view their individual consumption data through a secure web portal, allowing them to easily track their usage to support conservation efforts or plan for upcoming bills. AMI also allows utilities to quickly pull up consumption data for individual customers and determine when and how much water was used, which can help identify discrepancies or odd patterns that could indicate a leak.

Kee: Encouraging the use of a customer web portal requires effective communication, a user-friendly design and incentives to motivate the customer to engage with the platform. It is important to have a clear, easy-to-use user interface with intuitive navigation while providing a rich data set that is easy to understand. It is also important to highlight the benefits of using the web portal, like gaining access to account information and insights into water usage. There would also be some level of personalization to allow customers to customize their dashboard or notifications.

Kee: Water distribution systems will continue to incorporate advanced sensors, real-time data analytics, and automated control systems to optimize water distribution, reduce losses, and respond to changes in supply and demand. AI will also play an increasingly significant role in water distribution management. AI algorithms will analyze massive amounts of data from sensors and historical records to detect anomalies, predict equipment failures, optimize pump and valve operations, and make real-time decisions to enhance system efficiency.

A lot of water utilities still rely on tribal knowledge to maintain the operation supply of water to the end user. A shift from human intuition/estimation to a more statistically-informed, automated decision-making system is now on the horizon.

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