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Adapting Customer Service During a Pandemic: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

image credit: © Alan Crosthwaite |
Rebekah Cambre's picture
Vice President ICF

Becky Cambre is Vice President of Innovation and Customer Engagement within ICF’s Commercial Energy Division. As the Customer Care Services Practice Leader, Becky’s organization supports...

  • Member since 2017
  • 1 items added with 3,719 views
  • May 28, 2020

This item is part of the Utility Customer Care - Spring 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

COVID-19, and the resulting economic impact, is placing pressure on all industries to shift their customer service strategies in order to engage effectively with customers. And utilities are no exception. Especially as many energy consumers face financial hardships and seek guidance for ways to reduce costs without losing service.

Utilities are carefully managing communications with customers. Some have created dedicated programs to reduce costs, generating high response rates. To provide unprecedented value to these customers during a health crisis, utilities must adapt tactics. But what exactly should they be leaning on to do so?

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At first glance, Hurricane Katrina, one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history, and the epidemic may not have much in common. Yet, any disaster, whether a massive storm or contagious virus, places utility customer service representatives at the forefront of the crisis. Key learnings from past events can help utilities further refine their approach to customer service during this pandemic and place empathy and personalization at the forefront of all customer interactions.

Prioritize Empathy and Trust

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, I was part of the team on the frontlines guiding people through the grant navigation process. Back then, our work was mostly conducted over the phone or at regional walk-in assistance centers. Not only was I seeing the devastation through their eyes, but, as a Louisiana native, I was directly impacted by the storm. Today, every citizen across the U.S. has been affected by COVID-19, and utilities have had to respond appropriately, all while customer service representatives are also directly feeling the impacts.

Given the threats that customers are facing, many are anxious when calling the utility seeking information about energy efficiency programs. The key to effective engagement and communicating is having empathy for customers. With COVID-19, we’re all in this together, and representatives understand the anxiety. This natural empathy shown by representatives has helped to ease barriers, show value, and build trust.

To further ensure trust, it is important for customers to be assured that their utility is present and available when they are needed most. From an operations perspective, this means expanded hours when customers know they can reach and talk with a representative. Additionally, you may need a larger number of representatives who can handle increased call volumes and longer call durations to help minimize the frustration that comes with long wait times.

Technology Can Create Personal Connections

Technology has come a long way since Katrina. Back then, we communicated through telephone, facsimile, email, postal service, and in-person at regional assistance centers. In a state of desperation, people used whatever channel they could to seek assistance. Many times, they would send the same information across multiple channels, requiring time-consuming assimilation into a single case file on the backend.

In 15 years, technology has not only improved, but new communication channels have emerged that improve the timeliness and effectiveness of communications. Web chat is one such example. In practice, web chats can help customers find quick answers to minor questions or save them time. Text messaging has become ingrained in daily life with many customers expecting to receive updates or even reminders by text. So what’s next? With millions of Americans working or schooling from home, video conferencing has skyrocketed. Video conferencing provides a valuable channel to enhance the personalized experiences utilities strive for—especially as social distancing measures remain in place. A number of utilities are implementing or exploring video conferencing for virtual energy audits, unlocking more services they can provide now and into the future.

Outside of new platforms, technology can help teams effectively deliver a personalized experience. Previous interactions, communications, program participations, as well as energy consumption data, provides valuable background data and enables a more human conversation—something that can be derailed during stressful situations. Further, it also aids in disseminating and communicating relevant program offerings. This new technology has allowed our team to have a proactive, yet natural conversation about money-saving programs that may benefit them now.

Anticipate Customer, and Employee, Needs

Delivering a personal, custom experience in the age of social distancing requires not only technology, but the ability to be sensitive and receptive to the new realities customers are dealing with. Representatives have become more inquisitive and focused on the individual customer, rather than concentrated on selling new programs. Managers need to be in tune as customer attitudes evolve to make real-time adjustments to the messaging that their representatives use.

To provide the best service, however, it’s important to also check in on your employees’ well-being—both physical and mental. Employees that feel supported from a wellness standpoint can, in turn, support customers dealing with the crisis as well.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of humanity, empathy and technology in everyday life. Utilities can play a huge role in delivering all three elements to customers facing uncertainty and financial stress.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 29, 2020

Really interesting to think about the technological differences during the time of Katrina and now and how much different the pandemic response might have been if it happened back then. Makes you wonder what technology will be at our and the utilities' disposal in another 15 years to transform things-- any wild guesses on that, Rebekah?

Rebekah Cambre's picture
Thank Rebekah for the Post!
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