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Dealing with Your Utility’s Difficult Customers

image credit: ID 50649603 © Tyler Olson |

“How come I didn’t get my paper?” a reader barked at me over the phone earlier today.

Since I work in my newspaper’s news department, I had no idea. In measured tones, I explained that to the cranky old guy and offered to give him the number of our circulation department. He immediately accused me of “passing the buck.”

While admittedly struggling to keep my cool, I again explained why I wasn’t privy to his newspaper status and that I wasn’t “passing the buck.” He finally grudgingly accepted my offer of the circulation department phone number (we’re working remotely, so I couldn’t transfer him myself).

So, what’s there to learn from this encounter?

Quite simply, there’s no pleasing some people, and you shouldn’t waste time beyond reasonable efforts to solve a problem.

Given the end in some places of pandemic-related payment moratoriums, it’s fair to say your utility’s customer service reps are going to be busy in the months ahead with angry customers who say they can’t pay their bills.

Problem is, no matter what suggestions you make regarding bill payments (or any other issue, such as ongoing power outages following a weather event), some people are going to remain unhappy.

A lot of people still subscribe to “the customer is always right” theory (especially customers!), but it seems pretty clear that that’s not true.

People worry too much about negative customer feedback, such as Yelp reviews, but those fears are overblown, especially if your utility is otherwise known for good customer service.

Increasingly discerning readers know how to spot unreasonable complaints. Whether it’s the restaurant customer complaining about a steak being undercooked and not getting a different steak (but not saying anything until after they eat 95% of the original offering) or a customer complaining that a utility won’t entirely waive months of utility payments, people can spot a crank a mile away.

So, when it comes to customer service, it’s best to resolve the problem, but remember that there’s no always a solution to every problem – and that’s OK.

Andy Gotlieb's picture

Thank Andy for the Post!

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mark wilkinson's picture
mark wilkinson on Sep 30, 2020 2:12 pm GMT

I tell people on my team all the time about the fact that "the customer is always the customer, but the customer isn't always right."  And, I know we can all sympathize with occasional calls from upset customers.  The situation you described at the newspaper pointed to an upset customer, as well as a bit of a process breakdown, where the customer reached you instead of the right department.  We train our customer service representatives with specific skills to handle those "Right call, wrong department" situations to communicate to customers that you want to be sure they get their situation resolved by the right people with the tools or authority to fix the issue. 

I'd caution any brand, utility or otherwise, not to underestimate the impact of Yelp and other online reviews, since those social outlets recieve far more consumer attention than NPS or JD Power.  We may not appreciate the influence those reviews and comments have on consumer sentiment, but Yelp isn't going away, so every brand should at least monitor their social reputation in case things on those forums get out of hand.  A single bad review isn't something to over-index, but businesses that don't at least monitor those sentiments could be surprised by negative sentiment.  Always better to have all the information to make decisions about the priority of the issue, right?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 30, 2020 4:17 pm GMT

Interesting idea, Mark-- I never would have thought to look at yelp for a utility. It's not like picking out a take out restaurant, your utility is your utility. So I would have to assume (and confirmed from randomly picking a few to look at on Yelp) that anyone who's going out of their way to post on Yelp about their utility is doing it because they are upset and want to vent, not to share their great experience with their power provider. GIven this self-selection towards more negative reviews, should utilities also take these scores with a grain of salt? 

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Andy Gotlieb on Sep 30, 2020 6:23 pm GMT

Mark, your points are well taken, but I'd question whether the influence of outlets like Yelp is beginning to wane. It seems as if a lot of people are starting to realize that a lot of cranks are making posts. How often have you read reviews for, say, a restaurant, and found that the one-star reviews really were unreasonable at best, unfair at worst? Surely utilities don't want to anger their customers, but there's no satisfying some people.

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