Trustpower plans further automation in order to lower costs and improve services in the hotly contested power and broadband markets it operates in.
The Tauranga-based firm, the country's fifth-largest electricity retailer by accounts, is using robotics, artificial intelligence and other digital tools to make its retail services faster and cheaper.
But Fiona Smith, the firm's general manager for customer operations, said Trustpower also wants to get more value from the interactions its staff have with users of its products.
She said the firm is automating its processes with a full understanding of the potential consequences. Customers rate their satisfaction using non-staffed channels – such as chatbots and apps – almost as highly as those dealing with an agent over the phone.
"Analysis supports our conviction that staffed channels remain important," Smith said in an investor presentation she will speak to later today.
"Staffed channels focus on the moment that matter, the complex and the emotional, where propensity to churn spikes."
Trustpower shares were recently up 1.4 per cent to $5.66 from $5.58 at yesterday's close.
All the country's major energy retailers are working hard to reduce retail costs amid declining household power demand and increasing competition from a range of niche retailers.
More than 40 retail brands are now operating and smaller firms such as spot-retailer Flick Electric, Electric Kiwi, Ecotricity and energyclubnz now account for almost 4 per cent of the market by accounts.
Vocus Group, a broadband and telecommunications competitor of Trustpower, has gained about 15,300 power accounts since offering its own bundled service 18 months ago.
Trustpower gained about 5,000 utility accounts in the year through June, with gains in telecom and gas services more than offsetting losses in its electricity business. It now supplies about 89,000 telco customers.
About 101,000 customers now buy more than one service. More than three-quarters of the customers it signed up in the June quarter took more than one product.
But the rapid growth in the firm's broadband business has the potential to add to cost, given the greater contact those customers have with the company, particularly in the first few months after sign up.
Trustpower said it is budgeting on 1.65 million customer contacts this year financial year, 85 per cent more than in 2016. But it is aiming to handle those with the equivalent of 140 full-time call centre staff, down from 147 last year and 163 in 2016.
That would reduce the labour cost per service it provides to $34.07 this financial year, from almost $35 last year and $36.41 in 2016. That projection assumes the firm's retail services increase to 375,000 this year from 359,000 last year and 270,000 in 2016.
Trustpower said about 53 per cent of customer contacts are made with staff now, compared with 65 per cent last year and 98 per cent in 2016.
It wants to get that figure down to 40 percent and plans to more than double the level of automation in its telco provision to help focus staff time on the contacts that really matter. It thinks it can reduce its on-queue staffing to 132 full-time roles by the second-quarter of 2020 even as total services continue to rise.