Powering Strong Communities

Texting Aids Digitalization, Improves Customer Satisfaction for Kansas Utility

The Kansas City Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has discovered that texting can help it reach its digitalization goals, as well as improve employee efficiency and customer satisfaction.

This Kansas public power utility first embraced texting in 2021 when it began using TextPower to help improve and streamline several functions at the utility.

“Our strategy is to not only increase our customer engagement with our electric and water customers, but also the reliability of our grid, our IT applications, and employee communications in general,” Jerry Sullivan, Kansas City BPU’s Chief Information Officer said. “This means our goals are to reduce calls to the call center, reduce the frustration of disconnects, improve reliability, and reduce overall costs to run our operations, which means lower costs for our customers.”

In 2011 and 2012, Kansas City BPU became an early adopter of advanced metering infrastructure.  In the coming months, Kansas City BPU plans to add “full service move in, move out, and transfer service” to its customer self-service portal.  Their goal is to reduce the time and effort involved for service requests, add real time kiosk payments expediting turn-ons and payment processing, and improve interactive voice response call flow menus. 

In 2021, Kansas City BPU began a comprehensive project covering more than 30 use cases to meet the goals of reliability, safety, and customer experience. They started texting to send important employee safety notices and IT application outages. Prior to using TextPower, Kansas City BPU would send alerts about information technology outages via email, however, that often meant a message was not seen for hours, particularly if the outage occurred during off hours creating longer lags in addressing and fixing technology issues.

With texting, an employee can receive and read a text message during the night and often solve a problem such as resetting a server or addressing a memory overload issue quickly. “In the past, IT outages that occurred in off hours lasted four or five hours on average,” Sullivan said. “Now, the average response time is down to 25 or 30 minutes.”

Kansas City BPU also started using TextPower to alert employees about electric or water outages affecting industrial, residential and commercial customers.

Kansas City is home to several large industrial companies. For those customers, loss of electric power can result in thousands of dollars in lost revenues. If an outage affecting an industrial facility occurs, “we want to know immediately so we can put all our resources to work to solve the problem,” Sullivan said. “Alerting staff via text about an industrial outage helps improve customer relations by ensuring the utility staff is aware and ready to respond to the customers’ needs,” he said.

While it began the rollout of TextPower internally, Kansas City BPU was also bringing staff up to speed on the capabilities of its advanced metering infrastructure and preparing for the integration of texting with its other operating systems, such as outage management.

Enabling texting for internal operations provided an environment that was more easily tested, monitored and better prepared the utility for its ultimate goal, texting customers about outages. “We proved out the functionality and value proposition of the software before implementing more broadly,” Sullivan said.

Kansas City BPU began using TextPower to send notices to staff internally in August 2022 and by December had expanded its use of texting externally when it began sending customers billing notices via texts.

“Externally, we started with customer notifications because our focus groups and executives analyzed and determined that through informing customers of their billing payments or related notifications via text, would improve the customer experience while also reducing calls to the call center, improving our collections, and decreasing cut-offs for non-payment,” Sullivan said.

The utility also sends customers similar notices regarding arranged payments and can text customers confirmation that their payment has been received or to tell them that their payment is overdue. And, if it comes to it, the utility can provide customers with warnings that they are eligible to be disconnected or that they are scheduled for disconnection.

Before switching to TextPower to send billing notifications, Kansas City BPU would often receive volumes of phone calls from customers asking when their bill was due or if the utility had received their payment or if they were still on the list to have their power cut off. “That has gone away,” said Sullivan. By switching to TextPower to send billing notifications, customers know immediately when their payment has been received and they know whether or not their services will be disconnected for nonpayment.

Since it began texting billing notifications, the utility has seen an increase in prompt payments as seen in the steep declines – ranging from about 75 percent to 50 percent –in the number of billing notices it has had to send to customers. There has also been “a dramatic decrease in disconnects,” of nearly 34 percent monthly on average for the first four months of the year, said Sullivan.

There could be a lot of reasons why disconnects have dropped, Sullivan said, including lower bills, low-income assistance monies still available from the winter, leaving customers with a balance, and, certainly, he said, texting. “As a more direct linkage, TextPower billing and payment alerts have contributed to a significant decrease in calls.”

Kansas City BPU has a 28 percent reduction in call center calls, Sullivan said. “We have also seen a reduction in the average speed that operators can handle calls of about 50 percent, from three minutes to two minutes,” he said.

Since its rollout of billing notifications in the first quarter, Kansas City BPU has begun the rollout of texting for outage management. As with billing notifications, Sullivan anticipates a dramatic impact on the utility’s call center. “Customers will know that we know they are out, so they don’t have to call.”

Sullivan and his team prepared a detailed strategy for the rollout of outage notifications. The utility is marketing both use-cases – customer billing and outage alerts – together as a way of getting more customer buy-in regarding the potential benefits customers will see with text alerts.

Kansas City BPU used a variety of platforms to make customers aware of the availability of text notifications, including printing notices on bills and bill envelopes, interactive voice response messages, notices on the utility’s website, as well as notices on the utility’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. And, finally, Kansas City BPU used a direct mail campaign, press releases, and notices in BPU Connection, the utility’s newsletter.

The utility’s strategy also included platforms to avoid email and robocalls. They often generate a lot of calls and questions from customers regarding potential fraud, Sullivan said, adding, “People don’t read emails, and many people are afraid that robocalls are scams.”

Those views are backed by industry data. Many people now routinely ignore phone calls if they do not recognize the caller, but “less than 5 percent of text messages are spam, so customers are less likely to ignore them,” Mark Nielsen, executive chairman and co-founder of TextPower, said. “On the other hand, 98 percent of text messages are opened and 95 percent are read within three minutes.”

Social media would seem to be a good tool for customer engagement, but according to industry information, only 16 percent of followers are likely to see a post on social media and only 30 percent of followers on Twitter are likely to see a tweet. “It is hard to beat texting,” Nielsen said. “There is no other form of communication that comes close to the reach and immediacy of texting.”

The next step for Kansas City BPU, Sullivan said, will be sending customers service restoration notifications. “Outage notifications are good but, combined with restoration notifications, they will be a powerful combination.” For example, he said, a restoration notification could, in some cases, let customers know their service is back on, so they don’t need to plan to eat out instead of cooking at home.

Texting, in Sullivan’s words, has enabled Kansas City BPU to “empower employees and customers with timely and actionable information,” he said, adding, “TextPower is one of the most beneficial things we’ve ever done.”

For more information about TextPower, visit the company’s website.