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Case study: Web-sites of Utilities in Ontario

We recently reviewed 56 Web-sites of local electric distribution utilities in Ontario to understand the extent and nature of their relationship orientation using the Internet. We applied the model mentioned in an earlier article where we noted that companies respond variously to customers' requirements, evolving through four stages as they go from presenting basic information to becoming relationship driven in everything they do. These stages of development are Information, Interaction, Transaction and Customization.

All of the utilities' Web sites visited meet Stage One - Information requirements. They contain information of interest to customers and about the utility. Some enable customers to estimate usage and bills. Many of the Web sites, however, do not go very far towards helping customers help themselves. For example, only 40% allow customers to download forms needed to set up pre-authorized payment.

Sixteen (16) of the Web sites have moved to Stage Two - Interaction. Organizations with these Web sites are more intent upon helping customers interact with the utility. They facilitate such purposeful interactions as the reporting of street light outages, meter reads and household moves. Some enable customers to also make service requests.

None of the Web sites visited offer Web chat or technologies enabling the sharing of browsers and co-navigation. The volume of queries would affect the attractiveness of these technologies. A recent study for 1-800-flowers discovered that answering customers' questions via Web chat was 30% less costly than e-mail. Savings were even greater when compared to handling queries by phone.

Seven (7) of the utility Web sites are in Stage Three - Transaction. Customers can view their accounts but customers cannot yet pay online. Instead, customers are directed to use traditional payment methods. Links to banks are sometimes provided.

None of the Web sites are yet Stage Four - Customization. The Web sites do not automatically recognize customers and customize the online experience to individual customer profiles and needs, for example. None offer customers their own Web page, with customized content. One third of the Web sites understand that there is much difference between residential and business or commercial customers and they do often provide different pages on rates and billing, energy management and safety tips for each customer group.

Our findings suggest the Internet presents a significant opportunity for many Ontario utilities to keep up with the constant rise in customer expectations. Web sites should be about the customer, not the organization and they should be crafted as part of an overall plan for managing the customer relationship.