We’re at the dawn of a new era for meter reading - one that demands a modern solution for modern customers. Let’s face it: the utility industry has come a long way from house visits and manual data entry. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and prone to human error. Moreover, the unnecessary CO2 emissions resulting from these visits have become a significant concern, especially in the wake of the energy crisis which led consumers to become increasingly cautious about their usage. It is now more important than ever for the utility industry to provide consumption insights.
Fortunately, utility companies began installing smart meters to improve energy efficiency, reduce costs, and give customers real-time information about their energy usage.
But what about consumers who still have a legacy (traditional) meter? We’ve calculated that even today, there is still 20 billion legacy meters to be read annually in the world.
Many utility companies worldwide have adopted self-meter reading years go via postcards or phone calls, encouraging customers to submit their own readings without obstacles and eliminate issues associated with traditional meter readings.
Soon enough, challenges regarding self-meter reading came into play. Luckily, this solution kept evolving into what we call an “automatic self-meter reading”.
In this article, we will dive into the evolution of self-meter reading for utility companies, the difference between the manual and automatic process, and the various benefits and challenges associated with implementing this solution.
It's time to turn the page on the old ways of meter reading and usher in a new chapter of efficiency, accuracy, and customer empowerment with improved self-meter reading
Allowing consumers to submit their own meter readings has many benefits. Today, most utility companies allow customers to submit their meter readings as a way to help reduce costs and increase customer convenience. However, with the abundance of manuals available, it is clear that collecting meter readings can be a daunting task for the average person. And despite utility companies providing these guides and manuals on how to interpret the meter and collect the data accurately, the process can still pose challenges for those without any expertise on utility meters. Here are some of the common challenges that consumers may face when trying to submit their own utility meter readings:
When it’s time for consumers to do their meter reads, several challenges arise. These include the meter’s discreet location and lack of necessary tools or equipment to locate the meter (in the case the meter is difficult to reach).
Manuals on how to read a meter are everywhere. But are they comprehensive to consumers? Utility providers include lengthy written manuals and videos on their website that explain how to read the right meter. Some consumers may find these materials difficult to understand, especially if they are not familiar with technical terms or concepts.
Many consumers find confusion between meter types (gas, water, electricity) due to multiple meters installed in a central location, confusion with meters of similar appearance, or multiple utility services with their own meters.
This issue could affect even customers who are familiar with how to read their meter. They may make mistakes such as transposing numbers, where they swap the position of digits, or misinterpreting the display, where they misread the numbers or symbols on the meter.
In order to have a lower bill, some consumers intentionally manipulate their meter readings to pay lower utility bills. This can be done through tampering with the meter, bypassing it, or manipulating readings during self-meter reading.
Overall, while allowing customers to submit their own meter readings can be convenient and cost-effective, it's important to ensure that customers are properly educated about the process and that there are systems in place to address any issues that may arise. Later in this article, we will introduce a new and improved process for self-meter reading!
The challenges addressed regarding self-meter reading can have negative impacts on both the consumer and the utility provider. Stumbling upon any of those issues could lead to overbilling or underbilling.
When self-meter readings are inaccurate, it can result in incorrect bills and charges that do not reflect actual usage. In fact, up to 10% of the manually collected data contains error, resulting in faulty billFor instance, if a customer submits a meter reading that is lower than their actual usage, they will be billed for less than what they owe.
In contrast, if a customer submits a reading that is higher than their actual usage, they will be billed for more than what they owe.
The issue of “bill shock” resulting from inaccurate self-meter reading is a common negative reaction that consumers experience if their utility bill is higher than expected. They may feel frustrated, angry, or even taken advantage of by their utility company. This feeling can lead to financial strain and a loss of confidence in the services being provided.
After utility consumers experience a bill shock caused by inaccurate self-meter reading, they may contact their utility provider to dispute the charges or request an explanation.
But here’s the catch: energy customer complaints in the UK are at a record high, with 105,340 complaints being sent to the Ombudsman in 2022. That’s a jump of nearly 20,000 complaints since last year, according to the BBC.
Such a high volume of complaints can be overwhelming for energy providers, who may struggle to respond to each complaint in a timely and satisfactory manner.
Resolving these complaints requires a significant amount of work too, as back-office teams must thoroughly investigate each case to uncover the truth and take necessary actions, such as correcting invoices and sending additional communications, which will incur additional costs. In some instances, energy suppliers may need to send personnel for site visits to verify the submitted data.
Overall, these high volumes of customer complaints demonstrate the importance of accurate meter readings and the need for efficient and responsive customer service from energy providers.
If complaints are not adequately resolved or if the customer continues to experience those issues, they may consider switching to a different utility provider. A recent study by Energy UK revealed that 175, 334 consumers switched to a new electricity supplier in March 2023, which has risen by 62% since last year. The term used by the industry to describe when a customer switches from one electricity supplier to another is called a 'Change of Supply Event.'
This doesn’t come as a surprise when looking at a survey from 2021, which asked 8,803 energy consumers what their main complaint to their provider was. Results showed that 36% of those complaints were related to poor customer service.
This can result in lost business for the original provider, highlighting the importance of addressing customer concerns and improving service quality to prevent customer switching.
There are two process in which consumers can do a self-meter reading: automatic and manual. The challenges mentioned previously are more related to the manual process and channels.
This section dives into the evolution of self-meter reading, and where it stands today.
Consumers are empowered to control their own usage and do their own meter readings through offline and online channels.
Although implementing self-meter reading is one step ahead of traditional meter reading, it still relies on manual methods and channels that come with their own flaws.
It’s important to note that notification channels (e.g: SMS, email) are different from submission channels (e.g: online form, phone call) and that within one channel, the submission process could vary. For example, post cards as a self-meter reading channel could be both offline and online, despite it being traditionally associated with offline channels.
Just like it sounds, offline self-meter reading does not require an internet connection, and its main purpose is to serve rural areas or regions with limited internet access.
In some parts of the world, offline self-meter reading channels may be more prevalent than online methods due to factors such as poor internet connectivity, lower technology adoption rates, or cultural preferences. In Germany, using offline channels is more popular due to its emphasis on privacy and data protection.
In developing countries or remote areas, manual or offline methods may still be the norm for submitting meter readings. Similarly, older adults or those with limited digital literacy may prefer to use offline channels for ease of use.
Here are some examples of offline self-meter reading channels:
Some utility providers can provide customers with a pre-printed meter reading form to customers, who can fill in the readings and mail them back to the company.
Instead of having to send back the postcard by mail, some companies provide a QR code or a link in which customers can visit to submit their meter readings online. In this case, post cards can be both offline and online channels of self-meter reading.
Some utility companies continue to offer customers the option of submitting their meter readings via phone. To do so, customers can dial a designated phone number and input their readings using the keypad or by speech.
Another option of self-meter reading is through SMS, which typically requires the utility provider to send a reminder message to the customer. Next, the customer sends a message back with the meter readings, as well as their account number or name.
Submitting self-meter readings has become much more convenient with the rise of online self-meter reading channels. These digital platforms enable customers to submit their readings to their utility provider through the internet, opting for more convenience, accuracy, and efficiency.
As online channels grow in popularity within the utility industry, more and more companies now offer online-self meter reading as a standard option for their customers. The process is meant to convey ease and convenience, and for customers to access their consumption data in real-time.
In some cases, utility providers send an email to the customer with instructions on how to submit their meter readings, followed by a form. The customer then fills it out and sends an email back with the reading.
Sometimes, utility providers include meter reading instructions on their website and expect customers to take a photo of their meter, add their account number in the body, and send it to their email address.
Some utility companies have developed mobile apps that allows customers to make an account and submit their meter readings. A unique benefit of this channel is the notification feature, which remind customers about their bill due dates or when it’s time to submit a new meter reading.
Many utility companies provide an online form through their websites in order for customer to fill it out when it’s time to do meter reading. This form can be directly found on the website, but could also be accessed through a chatbot depending on the provider.
In the utility industry, chatbots have come a long way from being simple technologies that are only limited to predefined scripts and responses.
With a basic chatbot, customers can choose from the options provided until they get an answer for their query.
When it comes to submitting a meter reading, the chatbot takes customers to an online form in which they have to manually fill out. These chatbots can only handle simple and straightforward customer inquiries and are rule-based. Consequently, customers get frustrated when their question is not being answered, or when their inquiry is not one of the options.
As AI technologies advanced, utility companies began improving the basic chatbot or implementing smarter chatbots powered by natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning algorithms.
An interesting implementation of a basic chatbot is image processing, which involves using an algorithm that could extract data from photos. This concept can easily be applied once customers have sent a photo of their meter to the chatbot.
Let’s explore this automatic way of self-meter reading and the value it adds to both customers and utility providers.
Due to the limitations of basic chatbots, improved AI self-meter reading channels began to thrive. Older chatbots are unable to understand natural language and complex requests. The utility sector can benefit greatly from implementing AI initiatives for both improving customer service and operational performance.
Chatbots are being used in contact centers to handle customer inquiries and reduce service delivery costs. However, AI technology has evolved to where chatbots simulate human tasks
Seeing the limitations of current chatbots, Blicker steps in with the goal of providing a more sophisticated and personalised customer experience.
Through image processing, Blicker extracts data from a photo of a meter in just a few seconds. It is highly customisable, allowing utility providers to communicate with customers in their preferred channel. For example, WhatsApp could be the main channel where customers could do self-meter reading.
What’s more impressive is that it provides virtual assistance anytime, detailed feedback, and support team relief in case something goes wrong!
By allowing customers to submit meter readings through their preferred channel, the Blicker chatbot increases the customer response rate. Utility providers can easily start thousands of conversations simultaneously, with just a click.
This method of self-meter reading does not require customers to do anything but take a photo, relieving all the confusion around manual data entry. Most importantly, customers and utility providers ensure that the meter readings are accurate. No more wrong bills, no more fraud, no more complaints.
After examining the challenges, consequences, and benefits of self-meter reading, it is clear that customers are still tied to manual data entry which often leads to inaccuracy and wrong bills. The utility industry has evolved tremendously since then, introducing modern channels that are easy and convenient to use.
Especially with the emerge of Blicker, a vision-AI solution, utility providers can now empower customers to do self-meter reading with the click of a photo. The interactive environment of Blicker's chatbot eliminates all the challenges associated with self-meter reading, introducing an improved era of accuracy, efficiency, ease, and customer responsiveness.