AI and bill payment: the future for utilities?

- by Noah Solomon, Senior Research Analyst

On the docket at CS Week 42 in Tampa, Florida was the current and future state of customer experience, customer satisfaction, billing and payment and other topics for the utility industry. Among these topics was a look at the future of bill payment: What do customers want? What can utilities learn not only from customer behavior in interactions with them, but in general commerce and transactions with other industries? And how can utilities implement this information into their own billing and payment options?

Luke Stowe, Chief Information Officer for the City of Evanston, Illinois, and Max Bisschop, Strategic Partnerships and Direct Sales for Alacriti, discussed how utilities can leverage AI technology to improve the bill payment experience. According to NPR and Edison Research, 39 million (or 16% of) Americans now own a smart speaker, up 128% from January 2017, and Juniper research projects these devices will be in 55% of American homes by 2022. There is significant interest in “conversational commerce,” conducting transactions by voice from the comfort of one’s home.

In addition to the projected growth in voice technology, the global chatbot market is expected to reach $1.25 billion by 2025, indicating interest in interaction via text chat as well. Put these together and you have a clear picture of this drive in consumer desires and expectations.

Businesses are noticing this and responding in kind. Many businesses now conduct transactions via chat through the digital channels consumers use most. These companies include Uber, Hyatt, Fitbit, American Express and Walmart, all allowing a conversational shopping and/or payment experience over chat and/or voice.

According to Stowe and Bisschop, consumers want a conversational experience with a bot/device that is anywhere, real-time, personalized and self-aware. Chartwell also finds 43% of utilities cite artificial intelligence and/or intelligent assistants as a major trend they see as very influential over the next 10 years (member login required), indicating many in the industry also see this as something to which utilities must pay attention and respond.

So how can utilities learn from this? Simple: Incorporate these platforms and options into the bill payment experience through channels consumers already use. The easiest of these is Facebook Messenger, a popular platform with consumers and one into which some utilities are already looking. Chatbots engaging in conversational billing and payment and customer service are becoming more common across industries, both within company websites and third-party sites. Amazon Alexa and other smart speakers are another avenue with significant potential. Utilities would be wise to explore their options in bringing some or all of these options to consumers and anticipate this explosive growth of chat-based commerce.

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