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Beyond the Bill - Customer Care Is Evolving into Consumer Education

Kristen Jaeger's picture
Senior Analyst ISO New England

I have been part of the industry for 15 years and I am experienced in many different areas including customer support, demand response, energy efficiency and asset auditing. I now spend the...

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  • May 17, 2021 10:40 am GMT
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In the not-so-distant past, when a light switch was turned on, not too many people thought about what is required to ensure the electricity was there to meet the demand when the switch was flipped.  With the level of smart meters, thermostats, and appliances being installed in homes continually on the rise, utility customers want to be more engaged than ever before regarding their electricity consumption.  Simply delivering the electricity to their home is no longer enough.  Combine this with an increasing number of competitive suppliers customers can choose from to supply their electricity, and it is clear to see that customers are in control of not only their energy use, but also who they purchase that energy from and how that energy is produced.

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This means robust customer support is an important component of the overall experience a customer can expect from their chosen utility.  The main focus of this customer support platform should be that the utility is confident they understand their customer, not only from an energy usage perspective, but from a human perspective as well.  As we have all witnessed this past year, there are many unexpected challenges that arise which can make it difficult or nearly impossible for a customer to pay their bills.   Given that electricity is a necessity for sustaining life, customer care involves empathy for each individual situation and doing whatever is necessary to provide assistance and making the customer feel like their utility bill should be one of the least of their worries.

Additionally, proactively reaching out to customers on a periodic basis to find out what is working well and what can be improved is also a necessary part of creating a robust customer support platform.  Once a utility is able to gather enough data in this area, it is easier to create programs and incentives that will benefit the customer population as a whole, create more meaningful relationships, and possibly improve negative situations like unpaid accounts, high call volumes, and loss of the customer altogether.

Customer education also plays an important role here.  Now more than ever, customers are taking a proactive approach to managing their energy consumption by installing solar panels, energy storage devices, and smart meters and appliances.  If the utility takes the time to help the customer understand beyond just the surface benefit of cost savings, and does something more like provide an individualized plan to show how the customer can best utilize these devices (reducing peak demand use, setting thermostats according to a schedule, etc.) this is another positive step toward reducing the number of questions fielded by the utility and will also continue to reduce customer bills, which will result in less non-payment.  Helping customers understand their utility bill by making it easier to read and explaining each line item so the customers know what they are paying for will also go a long way in helping the customer help themselves.

Making sure to pay special attention to the customers that are not satisfied is also a key component of high-quality customer support.  It is imperative that utilities strive to understand what is not working for these customers and why.  There should also be a firm roadmap to improvement that can be shared with the customer so they feel they have been heard and understood.

Reimagining and rebuilding a customer support platform can seem like a massive undertaking, but even small changes can make a big difference.

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Thank Kristen for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 17, 2021

Customer education also plays an important role here.  Now more than ever, customers are taking a proactive approach to managing their energy consumption by installing solar panels, energy storage devices, and smart meters and appliances.  If the utility takes the time to help the customer understand beyond just the surface benefit of cost savings, and does something more like provide an individualized plan to show how the customer can best utilize these devices (reducing peak demand use, setting thermostats according to a schedule, etc.) this is another positive step toward reducing the number of questions fielded by the utility and will also continue to reduce customer bills, which will result in less non-payment. 

As more third party stakeholders pop up in different ways in the utility ecosystem, I would think that this customer education area is also an area where utilities retain unique positioning in having the baseline trust of the customer. The utility is less likely to be seen as trying to sell a product to a customer or give them something they don't need, as opposed to a less regulated, profit-focused company-- is that something you're seeing, Kristen? 

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on May 17, 2021

Kristen, 

Welcome back - it has been a while since I have seen you in the community. Thanks for this post.  I think the challenge with customer services and education is that I believe the majority of customers really are not that interested in where and how their power gets to their home, as long as it is working.  That may be presumptive of me to assume but it seems that way to me.  I wonder how we get the end customer to be more engaged and active and perhaps create an "Uber" or "Amazon" type experience for them?  How do we get them more engaged in the process? And for those who are active how do we keep them involved? 

Brian Lindamood's picture
Brian Lindamood on May 19, 2021

Thanks Kristen, this is a critical topic. You make a great point about the importance of proactive communication. Too often in the past utilities contacted customers only when there was a problem (like an outage) or just to send a bill at the end of the month. Those are not positive interactions! These days a successful customer relationship should be proactive and consistent, with a regular cadence of educational content, helpful advice and other engaging touchpoints before the monthly bill arrives.

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