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EEC Webcast Recap - "Changing Up Customer Comms During COVID-19"

John Egan's picture
President, Egan Energy Communications

Egan Energy Communications Inc. is a utility-industry content-creation firm headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado. Before founding EEC in 2009, John Egan was a research director at E SOURCE, a...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Dec 15, 2020

On November 18, EEC held another successful webcast in its “Communications During COVID” series. I am grateful for our speakers, Bobbi Schroeppel of NorthWestern Energy (NWE) and David Mehlhaff of the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities (BPU), and all who attended.  

For those who were unable to attend the webcast, you can access the recording here. I hope you can block out some time to learn about the strategies and tactics these two utilities are using to reshape their customer communications during the pandemic. Here’s a recap:

Personalized Communications

With the pandemic threatening the health and financial security of so many residential and business customers, our speakers agreed it was more important than ever for customer communications be compassionate, timely, relevant and easy-to-understand.

Both Bobbi (left) and Dave emphasized the importance of proactively reaching out to customers and encouraging them to contact their utilities if they were having trouble paying their utility bills. Like many utilities, NWE and BPU suspended disconnections and late fees for a while, and both utilities offered flexible payment options for customers who had fallen behind on their bills. 

Before the pandemic, NWE began a “postcard campaign” where employees in the customer service department would send postcards to customers as part of the utility’s customer experience initiative (see below). Bobbi shared that many customers responded back with appreciation that their utility was thinking of them on their birthday or as the seasons changed.

Credit: NorthWestern Energy

Prior to the pandemic, she continued, NWE began including meal recipes in its customer newsletter, and those recipes helped drive up readership of the newsletter. 

Dave shared that BPU’s general manager wrote a letter to the community where the key messages included unity, financial assistance and safety.  

“Communications” is a broad category of activities that includes words and deeds. As Bobbi and Dave showed, there are a variety of ways utilities can use to show their support for customers, both during the pandemic and afterward.

No-fee Payment Kiosks Proliferate

Dave (right) discussed an operational change BPU made that sent clear communications signals to its customers: After the pandemic hit, it deployed dozens of payment kiosks across the greater Kansas City, Kansas, area while waiving the fee for using those kiosks.  

BPU then launched a campaign showing customers all their payment options (below). Prior to the pandemic, about 13,000 customers would pay their bills in person each month in the utility’s lobby. When BPU closed their lobby, it needed to ramp up other payment options. Wisely, it waived the fees for using the dozens of kiosks deployed across its service area.

Credit: BPU

Dave said the kiosks have been so popular that BPU plans to continue using them and waiving the fees after the pandemic is over. This is another example of communicating by deed: imagine the negative signal that would have been sent if BPU deployed the kiosks but assessed a fee for their use! 

Donations, Cash and Otherwise, to Support Those in Need

Concrete actions, like what Dave and Bobbi described, were only some of the many deeds utilities are doing during the pandemic to show they value and support their customers. 

In a poll of webcast attendees: 

  • Many said their utility was participating in community food drives
  • Many also said they were making cash donations to human service organizations
  • A few said their employees were supporting teachers and students by volunteering to be tutors for students
  • Several said they were conducting “Thank you” ad campaigns recognizing and supporting small businesses, first responders, teachers and other essential workers who are under such strain during the pandemic
  • Some said they were conducting virtual town halls with customers 

Actions speak louder than words, as Abraham Lincoln said back in 1860. That’s as true today as it was when Honest Abe first said it. Although I am a wordsmith, I have often counseled clients and colleagues to speak with their actions — in other words, showing, in addition to telling. Check out past blogs on that topic here and here.  

Doing the Right Thing Can Build Your Brand

Over the summer, when we were developing this webcast on customer communications during the pandemic, Escalent (formerly known as Market Strategies International) conducted primary market research on how a utility’s brand could be affected by what it did during the pandemic. Two takeaways from their study jumped out at me, and we shared those during the November 18 webcast:  

  • Utilities could significantly increase their brand trust scores when their customers were aware of how the utility supported them during the pandemic, but
  • Only one in five (20%) of customers were aware of their utility’s COVID-19 relief efforts. 

“Our research shows that utilities score measurably better when customers are aware of how utilities can help them with the impact of COVID-19,” Chris Oberle, senior vice president at Escalent, said in releasing the study’s results in July.  

On the webcast, I said now was not the time for utilities to break their metaphorical arms patting themselves on the back. But neither was it the time to be shy about highlighting the ways they are and could help their customers. You are only limited by the creativity of your employees!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 16, 2020

Great to see what utilities have stepped up to provide with compassion and care during unprecedented times. John-- do you think anything that's been learned or pivoted to will 'stick' even outside of the pandemic? Has there been a trend that needed the COVID push to get off the ground in customer care that might now stick around indefinitely? 

John Egan's picture
Thank John for the Post!
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