• Usability & design
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In search of the ultimate Web site

In search of the ultimate Web site

Websites van energiebedrijven worden in het algemeen als niet interessant en frustrerend beschouwd. Toch is het niet allemaal doffe ellende; Platts Energy heeft alle do’s en dont’s op een rijtje gezet.

Many consumers find energy company Web sites awkward, confusing, and frustrating, compared with world-class sites such as amazon.com or fedex.com, most financial service sites, and many telecom sites.

This shortfall in user-friendliness costs energy companies?particularly electricity and gas suppliers?time and money. Here?s why: Two-thirds of all utility customer service transactions are for transferring or starting service, checking account balances, and making arrangements for paying bills. Such simple transactions are easy to shift to the Internet if the facilities for handling them are built into a Web site.

Which utility sites come closest to having the ideal functionality and usability? After a comprehensive review of over 100 North American and international utility Web sites, Arizona Public Service Co. (Phoenix), Carolina Power & Light Co. (Raleigh, N.C.), Duke Power (Charlotte, N.C.), and Florida Power Corp. (St. Petersburg) were rated ?best.? CP&L and Florida Power are units of Progress Energy. Approximately 1,800 electric and gas Web pages were searched for and assessed within the group of 100 by researchers at Platts Research & Consulting (PR&C)?the energy information, consulting, research, and marketing services unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

PR&C found the top four utilities supported about 90% of 18 vital functions searched for (table), and all four sites had pages that were ranked among the highest in ?ease of use? terms. A significant part of the research effort involved looking deeper than the home page; it delved into underlying pages?specifically those offering online services to customers.
?First-generation electric and gas company Web sites were designed with investors, employees, the press, and even the CEO in mind,? says Andrew Heath, director of PR&C?s E Source E-Business Service.

?Many of the early reviews of utility Web sites were primarily concerned with the richness of the sites. Few addressed the needs of utility customers, including the ease of use of the site. This survey paid special attention to the ease of finding and using the features offered on electric and gas utility Web sites.? Although Internet use among most segments of society is growing quickly, traffic levels at most utility Web sites is relatively low. Utilities would prefer it another way and are pitching the Web as an easy to use channel, one that?s more efficient than either the telephone or the mail. Of course, if ?a site is not easy to understand and use, then electric and gas companies should not be surprised if their customers continue to use existing, more-expensive channels,? Heath says.

In her dreams

Kim Seney of Arizona Public Service dreams that all 850,000 of her company?s customers do business with the firm on the Internet. But Seney, who as Web team leader has the unusual title of ?manager of clicks and bricks,? is more realistic when she is awake.

Some 100,000 APS customers are registered to use the site, and of those some 65,000 ?come to the site to do something each month,? Seney says. About 42,500?or 5% of the utility?s customer base?pay their bills at the site. APS designed its site for customer ease of use and continues to modify it as needed. ?Our goal is to drive our customers to our site and keep no less than 95% satisfied,? Seney explains. APS uses a variety of non-electronic marketing to remind customers that the site exists and that it can handle significant transactions. Also, the site looks different to different groups of users?a move to make it customer centric.

Energy companies have plenty of motivation to drive as many customers as possible to their Web site and then to making electronic transactions. Any number of studies reveal the significant cost saving possible. Each customer inquiry to an energy company call center costs that company between $7 and $10, but ?that same function performed on the Internet costs the company about 13?,? says Maggie Boys, a top researcher of the Utility Customer Care service at PR&C. ?Our research shows that nearly two-thirds of all customer service calls could be handled by Internet self-service functions, including starting or transferring service, checking account balances, and making payment arrangements,? adds Young B. Kim, author of Usable Utility Web Sites, a detailed research report from the E Business service of PR&C.
A single customer service representative in a utility call center can only help one customer with a given function at any one time. But online, multiple customers can simultaneously obtain the same service. The payoff of being able to handle transactions online is obvious, adds Kim.


Managers at Portland (Ore.) General would agree. Following an extensive redesign of its Web site, Portland General customers now can do anything online that they are able to do on the telephone with the utility?s service center. Customer response is stunning, says Portland General Web team leader Dick Myhre. ?Some 77.8% [of those doing business via the Internet] say the site makes it easy to do business with us, 83.6% say they are satisfied [with the online experience], 91% say they will come back to the site, and 44% say they have a more favorable impression of the company after visiting the site,? explains Myhre. He offered no details on company savings.

Online bill paying up, utility Web sites down

In partnership with Equation Research of Estes Park, Colo., Platts Research & Consulting (PR&C), Boulder, Colo., also conducted a nationwide survey of active online residential consumers? use of the Internet.

The survey found the popularity of on-line bill payment is growing with consumers. More than one-third (36.1% of Internet users responding to the survey) said they plan to increase the number of bills they pay online over the next six months. For specific types of bills, such as telephone and primary credit cards, online bill paying trails only the U.S. mail as a payment vehicle.

Furthermore, 73% of respondents who said they had visited their energy utility?s Web site added that they have either ?already conducted? or ?would consider? setting up a payment arrangement. But only 46% respondents said they had already enrolled in an electronic payment plan. ?This is very good news for electric and gas companies,? explains Andrew Heath, director of the E Source E-Business Service of PR&C. ?So far, online billing adoption rates have been low, but it now appears that it is possible to reach the participation levels originally expected. It?s just going to take longer.”

But for energy companies all the news from the survey is not good. When asked what company or companies have the best Web site overall, not one respondent mentioned their energy utility. In fact, the rating for the ?best? Web site of any kind of company?an average 8, on a 10-point scale?was far higher than the average consumer ratings given to the Web sites of electricity and gas utilities?which averaged 6.4 and 6.3, respectively. The Web sites of other suppliers of day-to-day products and services were also rated higher than energy utility sites. Banks consistently received the highest score?an average 8.1.

Both the Platts/Equation Research consumer survey and the 2002 PR&C survey of utility Web sites are available for purchase from E Source. For pricing and other details, phone Andrew Heath at (720) 548-5746, or e-mail him at .(JavaScript moet ingeschakeld zijn om dit e-mail adres te bekijken) 

But Myhre does note that traffic on the Portland General site is up nearly 59% since November 2001, indicating greater use by customers, of which the utility has 700,000. Approximately 53,260, or 7.6% of Portland General?s customer base, are ?registered? to do online business with the utility. That uptake is much higher than at most other U.S. utilities, which often struggle to get just 2 to 3% of their customer base online. The fewer bills Portland General prints and mails, the more it saves, especially following this year?s 3? U.S. Postal Service increase for first-class postage.

Best in class

Heath says his study revealed a marked difference between the ?best in class? and the ?also-rans??both in terms of the functions supported and the usability of the functions. Half of the energy industry sites reviewed earned ratings of ?poor? to ?moderate? when examined from a customer?s point of view (see box, below). And on average, energy company Web sites only supported two-thirds of the functions customers would be interested in using.

Most utility Web sites fall short of consumer needs

Earlier this year, Platts Research & Consulting (PR&C), Boulder, Colo., vetted the Web sites of more than 100 electricity and gas utilities. Most of the sites are run by large companies serving markets in North America, but a representative set of Web sites operated by international and smaller energy companies were included as well.

The main conclusions from the research are:

- In general, the usability of electric and gas utility Web sites is poor.
- Functionality is more advanced than usability.
- Usability is the main barrier. Some Web sites fail to consider the needs of customers, many sites fail to recognize the importance of customers, and only a few sites offer a broad range of online services with easy-to-use pages.

If functionality is considered a measure of quantity and usability a measure of quality, then the average energy utility Web site scores relatively high for quantity of functions and low for quality of interactions?not unlike the average VCR. However, unlike manufacturers of consumer electronics gear, energy companies appear to recognize the problem, and some have demonstrated a willingness to address it.

According to Andrew Heath, director of the E Source E-Business Service of PR&C, usability factors include the ease of finding the Web site, the time it takes to find specific functions, and the ease of the navigation.

Functionality is simply a measure the features supported by the Web site, he adds. Unfortunately, half of the Web pages reviewed rated from ?poor? and ?moderate? from a customer?s point of view, and the average Web site only supports two-thirds of the typical functions customers expect to see.

Surprisingly, no one Web site supported all 18 fuctions looked for, says Heath. ?The average [energy utility] Web site has only about 67% of the functions we would expect them to have. However, ease of use is the one characteristic most sites lack. Overall, the message from the typical electric and gas customer appears to be: ?I?m confused by your Web site; don?t
give me any more features until you?ve made the ones already on your Web site easier to find and use,? says Heath.

Some sites?such as those of Connecticut Light & Power (Hartford), Niagara Mohawk (Syracuse, N.Y.), Southern California Edison Co. (Rosemead, Calif.), MidAmerican Energy (Des Moines, Iowa), and Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co.?were rated highly for the functions they supported. Meanwhile, sites run by Wisconsin Electric Power Co. (Milwaukee), Alabama Power Co. (Birmingham), Massachusetts Electric Co. (Northborough), Wisconsin Public Service (Green Bay), Alliant Energy (Madison, Wis.), Portland General, Tampa Electric, and Georgia Power Co. (Atlanta) all scored well for usability.

Numbers are growing

Where consumers are offered opportunities to conduct routine business online, acceptance is growing, especially for those consumers with a high-speed Internet connection. Right now, about 9% of U.S. consumers pay their bills online, and of those with a high-speed connection, the number jumps to 14%, according to figures released by the Yankee Group, Boston.

Seney of APS notes that while 5% of the utility?s customers use the company?s Web site to pay their bills, 10 times as many pay using some form of electronic commerce. A Web site perceived as less desirable than a call center, or a Web site ignored, can spell trouble. ?We attempt to delight customers,? says Seney, ?because we see the Web site as a customer service opportunity as well as a lower-cost channel.?

A simple guide to a complicated issue

Here are some guidelines energy companies should keep in mind when considering their Web site?s design, functionality, and usability.

- Answer visitors? key questions. Every page on the site should be clearly titled to indicate its intended purpose. Keep in mind the two big questions novice or first-time users ask: ?What is this for?? ?What can I do here??
- Stick to the three-clicks rule. Research has shown that 75% of customers unable to find the information they want within three mouse clicks will abandon the session. Avoid cluttering pages with pull-down menu options or loading the navigation bar with far too many functions just to make them available with only one click.
- Make searching easy. Think of it this way: You?ve got customers at your front door; how will they find what they?re looking for? A useful search engine and a clear site map are two essentials that will enhance both the usability and functionality of your site. Should customers get lost, a well-organized site map can help them find their way around.
- Keep customer segmentation clear. Provide clearly labeled links on the home page for the three key customer segments on the home page ?residential, small business, and commercial and industrial.
- Make key functions accessible. The most frequently used or most popular online functions?or functions you would like customers to use frequently?should be named on the homepage navigation.
- Use customer-oriented labeling. Make sure visitors are not puzzled by the choices presented.
- Be sure the function of graphics is clear. If a graphic is meant to be navigational, make it look like a clickable button instead of a banner ad. Customers should be able to tell whether a graphic is clickable without having to move their mouse.
- Minimize load time. Sites should use the minimal amount of graphics possible, or at least design the graphics so that they will load quickly.
- Leave a trail of ?bread crumbs.? Bread crumbs reveal the site structure, helping customers figure out where they are as they move through the site and how to retrace their steps, should they need to start over.
- Speak the language of your customers. Less than 6% of energy sites have any foreign language capability, and only Hydro Quebec had replicated its site in two languages, as required by Canadian law. Considering how quickly the number of Spanish-speaking customers with Internet access in the U.S. is growing, utilities would do well to consider incorporating multilingual functionality into their sites to increase their competitive edge
- Think ?HTMinimaList,? or, simply stated, keep it simple. See the site of Wisconsin Public Service (http://www.wisconsinpublicservice.com) as a good example of the style. There?s lots of open space, and main functions generally appear ?above the fold,? requiring a minimal amount of vertical scrolling. Most information can be found within three clicks, and each page is clearly titled.

The quality of the site and its ease of use have improved customer perceptions of APS, which currently has no alternative supplier competition. ?We have primary research that says if Web site users were given a choice of another provider, most customers would stay with us,? Seney explains. Roberta Reed, Web design and production specialist at Otter Tail Power Co. of Fergus Falls, Minn., explains why a smooth-running Web site is vital to an energy company.

?Mostly, it?s about marketing and branding. If someone visits our site and is confused or frustrated, it makes your company look bad. It?s like walking into a division office and having an employee be rude to you.? Otter Tail now tests every new function before launching it on the company Web site, and Reed is in the process of going back and testing older features on the site.

It is vital that all Web site functions work and work well. According to a 2001 E Source survey of residential customers, only 17% have ever visited their utility?s Web site, and most of those adventurous souls had visited only once in the past year. Considering the infrequency of residential customer visits, it?s essential that first-time users be able to easily navigate through a site to find what they?re looking for. ?Their first experience may well determine whether they ever come back,? says Kim of PR&C.


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