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How utilities brand Southern California Edison uses AI and machine learning

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Stuart Hemphill, SVP, customer and operational services, Southern California Edison, is enthusiastic about the use of AI in processes such as data collection and employee vetting.

Stuart Hemphill is a Southern California Edison veteran, having joined the company in 1986 as a planning engineer. The business is a subsidiary of Edison International and dominates the electricity market in the region. Testament to its scale are its latest results: parent Edison International reported a net income of US$276M for the second quarter of 2018.


Generation gap

While clearly every household needs electricity, Southern California Edison’s customer base is both vast and diverse, spanning 50,000 square miles and five million customers. This presents a number of challenges, not least reaching “five generations” of consumer.

“I like to think of my parents and my kids as a great example of the variety of [our customers’] service needs,” Hemphill says. “My parents have an Apple iPhone, they use it as a phone. But my dad, and this is a true story, actually thinks you need to drive to get to the App Store. That’s one side.

“My kids on the other hand have the same iPhone, they use if for hundreds of different services. It’s a bank, it’s a movie theater, it’s a game console…there’s only one thing they won’t use it as — a phone! They don’t want to call anybody. In fact, they would rather go hungry than have to make a dinner reservation.

“So we have to be able to meet the needs of my parents and my children, and everybody in between, because everybody needs electricity, and that’s one of our biggest challenges.”


Customer satisfaction

Whatever the age, mindset or demographic of Southern California Edison’s consumers, keeping them happy is of paramount importance. The company measures how happy (or not) its customers are using a variety of methods. This includes employing industry benchmarking firm JD Power, which Hemphill says is “our primary means for measuring goals”.

“But we also measure customer satisfaction or sentiment through a voice-of-the-customer tool, provide real-time transactional feedback, and we do that through opt-in surveys,” he adds. “[There are] so many different ways we collect customer feedback and we use all of those to make sure our customers are satisfied.”

Nevertheless, there is a necessary evil, an aspect to energy supply that unavoidably impacts customer satisfaction, Hemphill says.

“One of our customers’ biggest pain-points is when we schedule outages so that we can upgrade our system,” he explains. “We call those maintenance outages and what that allows us to do is put on more renewable energy, make the grid stronger and more resilient and make sure the power’s more reliable for our customers.

“But unfortunately to do that we actually have to take power outages from our customers for those upgrades and our customers don’t like it, but over the long-run we’re doing the right thing for them.”

While customer sentiment is largely driven by the quality of the products and services they receive, Southern California Edison staff play an increasingly leading role in ratcheting up satisfaction levels.

Hemphill elaborates: “Over the last year we’ve had a major initiative to try to make sure everybody understands their role in driving customer satisfaction, not just in customer service but across the company,” he says.

“So we’ve had a very significant initiative, which looked at every interaction we have with customers to figure out how we can improve not just in what we do but how we communicate with customers. And that’s something we’re seeing a lot of fruit from today and will drive satisfaction forever.”


Artificial and emotional intelligence

Making the business more efficient and keeping prices low for customers is obviously a priority in driving that customer satisfaction, and AI is helping Southern California Edison power the customer experience and create a “better lifetime value for our customers”. But it’s important to establish a divide between machines and people, Hemphill insists.

“The trick for merging artificial intelligence into the workforce is to figure out what is best done by a machine,” he says. “Machines can do routine tasks, they can do things very efficiently, but they’re not very good at interacting with customers.

“So what we try to do is make sure that we use artificial intelligence for collecting data, for performing analysis, for doing quality assurance, and that takes away those responsibilities from our employees, who can focus more on customer needs instead.”

Interestingly, AI is also used in the recruitment of Southern California Edison’s staff.

“We have what we call a digital labour strategy, which allows us to see and experience how possible employees will interact with our customers and we’re able to score them before we even meet them,” Hemphill says. “That way we can make sure we’re hiring the right employees who think of our customers first.”


Electric cars and the renewable future

With global warming and environmental concerns moving up the consumer, corporate and political agenda, there are growing numbers of eco-conscious consumers seeking alternative sources of energy to fossil fuels.

Southern California Edison is not just listening but responding. For instance, customers have the option to have their energy supplied from entirely renewable sources via its ‘green rate’, and the company is investing significantly in areas such as wind and solar generation.

These cleaner sources of energy not only apply to Southern California Edison customers’ homes, but beyond their four walls.

“One of the greatest technology advances in recent years has been electric vehicles,” Hemphill says.

“Our customers want more and more renewable energy as the way of powering their needs. So what we’re doing to help them out is advancing electric transportation. With electric vehicles we can rely on renewable energy, which can help clean the air, help reduce greenhouse gases and climate change, and help meet their needs on their daily commutes.

“It’s something they can do to help the environment and we can do to help them help the environment.”