How robotic automation is improving customer service How robotic automation is improving customer service

How robotic automation is improving customer service

New process speeds start and stop service for Duke Energy customers


Late every summer, college students haul their mini fridges, laptops and industrial-sized jars of peanut butter to college dorms and apartments for the new school year. And energy companies across the country see big spikes in requests to start service. Each one of these requests – tens of thousands per month – was processed manually. Not anymore.

Now robots are helping power up campus housing before anyone can make an excuse to miss 8 a.m. classes.

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Rodrick Talley, from left, Melissa Penland, Tyler Jamison, Fred Barnhill, Paul Watkins.

Improved efficiency

Taking a cue from the finance and health care industries, who lead the way in robotic process automation, or RPA, Duke Energy is using automated software to increase efficiency and reduce errors.

Put simply, RPA is the use of software programs to mimic repetitive human tasks. For example, RPA can transfer data from a customer request into a scheduling system so that request gets on a worker’s calendar. 

“Duke Energy is a leader in the utilities world, but this technology really took off in the finance and health care world first,” said Paul Watkins, Duke Energy’s manager of web technologies, web and channel support. “We regularly share information between industries and learn from one another. When we saw how RPA is improving the way they process customer information, we knew there had to be some applications within the utility industry.”


The first foray into RPA

Watkins and his team identified starting, stopping and transferring service as a test case for RPA at Duke Energy. Hundreds of thousands of requests are processed every year, he said, and most require manual input. “During peak season that translates into a three-business-day turnaround just to get the request processed.”

Through collaboration with Duke Energy’s IT Digital Transformation team, Watkins and team created the robot program in just a few weeks. Now, RPA processes requests around-the-clock, immediately sending confirmations to customers who can be assured their requests are received and their services scheduled.

RPA doesn’t just speed things up; it improves accuracy too. The program detects incorrect account numbers and duplicate requests immediately, rather than requiring manual validation. By quickly logging and pinpointing where errors are most likely to be made, RPA also lets programmers improve the request process.

Looking for future applications

As the team perfects the use of RPA technology for starting, stopping and transferring service, Watkins and team are looking for other applications. “To provide the experience customers have come to expect,” he said, “we know we need to continuously innovate.”

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With that in mind, he foresees tying the efficiency benefits of RPA into existing remote smart meter processes. He expects that applying RPA processes to the existing remote smart meter connectivity capabilities will make things even easier for customers. 

“The technologies are all coming together to create smarter, faster, better ways to meet customers’ needs,” he said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

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