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The 2017 CRM Service Elite Customer Companies: Salt River Project
The water and electricity supplier diverts a customer call overflow with Interactions' virtual contact center agents
For the rest of the April 2017 issue of CRM magazine please click here

Salt River Project is a 114-year-old entity that supplies electricity and water to approximately 1 million customers in central Arizona. In that part of the desert, temperatures tend to spike pretty high, and so does the need for electricity- and water-related information and services. But the flood of customer calls to Salt River Project’s contact centers has slowed to a trickle, thanks largely to Interactions’ intelligent virtual assistant technology.

Before deploying Interactions’ virtual agents in May 2016, 97 percent of the 2 million–plus calls the utility received every year were being routed to live agents. When the call activity reached its peak during the hottest summer months, Salt River Project had to double the hours it assigned to its flex workers and bring on extra personnel, both at added costs.

The voice-based virtual agents, English-speaking Rosie and Spanish-speaking Ramon, now handle a large portion of the calls.

According to Yolanda France, director of customer contact operations at Salt River Project, call containment has increased significantly since virtual agents were implemented. “Our containment was hovering around 12 to 14 percent prior to Interactions, and now, we’re at a very solid 35 percent on average and working on increasing containment by optimizing current functionality and adding new functionality,” she says.

And containment on calls related specifically to power outages, among the most common reasons for calls, is at 46 percent, due to Rosie and Ramon’s ability to proactively confirm power outages via self-service capabilities.

A recent example of the virtual agents’ impact came during a strong storm in the area that caused many to lose power. Salt River Project “received significantly fewer calls to representatives than in the past,” France says. “We believe this was due to a combination of a successful outbound proactive messaging strategy and the Interactions solution.”

Across all digital channels—including web self-service, email, and social media—Salt River Project has reduced the number of customer service interactions that require live agent assistance by 24 percent. And because of the higher containment rates, Salt River Project was able to halve its summer seasonal surge last year.

“Every spring, we were hiring two classes with 36 people each,” France told CRM magazine in January. “Now we’re taking on only one class of 36.” This has allowed the company to reduce its staffing budget and cut its Phoenix-based contact centers from three to two. The company now employs about 200 agents.

“We need fewer reps now, and we’re managing them by attrition,” France said in January.

This is largely thanks to the feature-rich Rosie and Ramon, which offer 14 menus options, compared to the four provided by Salt River Project’s old interactive voice response (IVR) system. The virtual agents blend artificial and human intelligence to guide customer interactions. The built-in natural language understanding lets customers speak as they normally would.

The virtual agents have led to greater customer satisfaction, one of the utility’s longtime priorities. For the past 15 years, J.D. Power has rated Salt River Project highest in customer satisfaction among large utilities in the western region.

Recently, the utility “has conducted customer surveys and is pleased to report that our customers continue to be very satisfied with the system,” France says. “The personification of [Rosie and Ramon] has been very successful. For example, both internal and external parties refer to the CIVR by ‘her’ name, Rosie.”

“Working with Interactions enabled us to develop a best-in-class, flexible conversational automated care solution that had a transformative effect on the way we interact with our customers,” said Renée Castillo, the company’s senior director of customer strategy integration, in a statement. “Our customers are looking for speed, efficiency, and accuracy. The Interactions solution delivers.”

In light of its success with Rosie and Ramon, Salt River Project is considering rolling them out in other customer care channels, including web-based chat and SMS. The utility supports social media and email interactions on a limited basis and could expand in those areas. 

SINCE IMPLEMENTING INTERACTIONS’ VIRTUAL ASSISTANT TECHNOLOGY IN ITS CONTACT CENTERS, SALT RIVER PROJECT HAS:

  • increased self-service containment from between 12 and
  • 14 percent to 35 percent;
  • reduced the number of customer service interactions requiring live agent assistance by 24 percent;
  • halved the number of additional agents needed for seasonal activity spikes; and
  • cut its contact centers from three to two.

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