Welcome Neil Neroutsos: New Expert in the Customer Care Community - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]
- Nov 19, 2020 12:19 pm GMT
The relationship between utility and its customers is a unique one compared with different industry sectors, but it’s one that can be more critical for utility leaders than those in any other businesses. Utilities are tasked with keeping the customer as the most important consideration, above profits or other typical business drivers, because access to affordable and reliable power is mandatory for modern life, it’s not a simple luxury. And in this year of COVID-19 and the resultant economic hardship, it’s become more important than ever for utilities to be key organizations within their communities to provide customers with what they need, adapt to a new landscape, and be a partner rather than simple bill collector for customers who were having a rough time.
In that vein, the Customer Care community at Energy Central has arguably never been more important. When the world was changing so rapidly, it’s collaboration and sharing between utilities that have enabled them to stay on top of their customers’ needs and adapting in swift fashion. To keep adding to the value of the Customer Care community, we’re always looking for thought leaders to join our Network of Experts. Recently, we were fortunate enough to add to that network Neil Neroutsos, the Corporate Communications Manager at Chelan County PUD.
As a member of a PUD, Neil has a unique perspective, backed by more than 25 years of experience, and that provides him with invaluable insights that he can share with the Customer Care Community. Be on the lookout for Neil sharing this wisdom via articles, links, and comments moving forward, but to kick off that information sharing he agreed to join me for an entry to the official Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’
Matt Chester: Thanks for taking part in this interview, Neil. Can you start by sharing with our readers a bit about your background? How did you first get involved in the utility sector and what is it you do in your role today?
Neil Neroutsos: I’ve been working in public power communications for the past 20 years, at both Snohomish County and Chelan County Public Utility Districts in Washington state. My communications career also has included work in public transit, municipal government, and non-profit. Interestingly, I interned at Shell Oil’s corporate office in Houston in the 1990s, but I never thought I’d land in the energy sector a decade later.
In my current role, I manage internal and external communications – including directing media relations, developing marketing and communications plans, advising senior management on communications strategies, and overseeing the writing, design and production of internal and external communications across multiple channels. In short, my job is about sharing all the stories coming out of our organization. As a result, I have the chance to collaborate with virtually every area of the utility.
MC: Corporate communications is a critical need for utilities to stay engaged with their customers, employees, and community. What are the top priorities for utilities when they consider their corporate communications plan? How do the different stakeholders influence the overall message?
NN: My team prioritizes its work based on the mission and vision developed by our elected commission and senior team. These inform our five-year business plans, which my team supports in multiple ways throughout the organization. Ultimately, the question we come back to, again and again, is: How are we providing value to our customer-owners? They voted us into existence 90 years ago – through the law that formed public power in Washington -- and they’re the reason why we’re here. Our organization is very committed to stakeholder engagement – via community meetings, surveys and an extensive strategic planning process. All of our interactions with residents, businesses and local opinion leaders help us shape our communications so our messages are relevant and resonate with all of these stakeholders. In all of our communications, we strive to be transparent and authentic.
MC: You also specifically work in crisis communications, an area that’s been notably important in 2020 perhaps more than any other year. What have you learned about the crisis communications strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic that you didn’t already know? How can the lessons of this year be applied to other areas moving forward?
NN: Prior to 2020, I might have been a little complacent, thinking I’d experienced virtually all of it – earthquakes, extended snow/windstorms, organizational restructurings, wildfires, and the West Coast Energy Crisis of 2000-2001 and its subsequent high-profile litigation with Enron and others. But then COVID-19 hit; we were fortunate to have a pandemic plan already prepared. That said, things evolved quickly and unexpectedly, and we had to flex our plans and be nimble. Internal communications became one of my highest priorities as we looked for ways to reach employees with new communications tools, especially given half are now remote and we have large contingent in the field.
One of my key take-aways in the past several months is that we’re able to adapt much better to changing environments than we give ourselves credit for doing. In terms of external communications, we’ve developed stronger partnerships with healthcare leaders and others in our community to share information together in consistent ways so we can minimize the impact of the pandemic. Many of these strategies and new skills we know can be transferred to other types of crises. This year has also reinforced for me that we have to be compassionate with one another and realize we all respond to these events in different ways. That also helps shape our communications.
MC: How does your strategy in communications for a PUD differ from the same role in perhaps an IOU or other type/size utility? Do you have unique challenges to face as a PUD?
NN: Our commitment to engage our customers in shaping our plans is huge. IOUs do fantastic work for their customers – and like us provide an absolutely essential service -- but at the end of the day, their drivers are maximizing earnings and serving their stockholders. PUDs, on the other hand, reinvest everything back into their electrical systems and communities. Chelan PUD is highly visible throughout its service area, and we repeatedly communicate that we’re accessible for any questions or comments our customers may have. We must be accountable. Again, it’s coming back to the question about how we can provide the best value to our customers over the long term. These themes are constantly communicated to our customers, which has earned us extremely high satisfaction levels when we survey them.
MC: Can you share what it is about Energy Central that compelled you to get involved and integrated with the community? And what should community members look forward to you bringing to the table as our newest expert?
NN: Energy Central provides a great forum to share ideas and best practices with professionals throughout our industry. Whether it’s becoming more informed about ways we can all minimize cybersecurity threats, innovations in energy storage, operating in a COVID environment or integrating renewable energy resources, Energy Central helps me stay up-to-speed on key developments. The Pacific Northwest is hydropower country, so you can expect to hear more from me about why this resource is such a critical component of our energy mix. I’ll also share some case studies from our part of the country that I hope you’ll find valuable as you address issues at your own utility.
MC: What’s your final message for readers of Energy Central ‘meeting’ you for the first time?
NN: If it wasn’t already clear, I’m a public power advocate through-and-through. I’ve been really fortunate to work with really smart people from all walks of life – engineers, wildlife biologists, hydropower operators, energy planners, data analytics professionals, finance experts – and I’m constantly learning. I’ve landed in the place that I’m meant to be, and I really can’t imagine doing anything else right now.
Please join me in thanking Neil Neroutsos for his time in this interview and for his accepted role as a Customer Care expert in the Energy Central community. When you see Neil engaging with content around Energy Central, be sure to say hi, ask a question, and make him feel welcome!
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