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Evolving Customer Engagement in a Crisis: Prioritizing Adaptability

The COVID-19 global health crisis has reshaped nearly every facet of our lives, including the way we communicate with one another. One of the most prominent impacts is on the way companies across industries engage with their customers. For utilities specifically, which need to disseminate safety, resilience, and crucial energy management information to business and residential customers, breaking through this noise and meaningfully engaging with customers is essential. By thoughtfully adjusting their communication strategies and finding new ways of showing value thus far, many utilities have helped guide customers through this turbulent time. 

Yet, as cases surge in different parts of the country, re-openings and phased rollbacks are creating future uncertainty and anxiety for many customers. This is a complete shift from earlier projections, particularly in the spring, when many felt we would be headed toward recovery by now. The only thing we know for sure is that more change is on the horizon. Effectively marketing and managing customer programs in today’s ever-evolving climate requires that utilities fundamentally shift communications approaches to prioritize flexibility. Instead of seeing the solutions they’ve implemented as short-term adjustments, utilities should anticipate ongoing disruption. They should consider ways to refine and improve these strategies  to weather new, emerging challenges moving forward. 

 

Conduct Regular Environmental Scans and Customer Temperature Checks

As states oscillate through various reopening phases, utilities should consider performing regular environmental scans to reassess what is happening in their market in real time in order to constantly and rapidly shift their approach as needed. This includes monitoring updates in regional or state policies, surges in cases, population shifts, including college students returning to campus, and economic developments. It's crucial to have a constant sense of what’s occurring, whether economic or health-wise—all of these factors translate back to how utilities can better serve their communities and communicate with customers. 

After evaluating any changes that might be occurring with a utility’s service territory, directly connecting with their customers to understand evolving needs is key to developing agile programs. Many utilities are staying nimble by implementing active temperature checks and translating their learnings into customer-facing communications. This may require, at times, pausing media campaigns, shifting communications spending and rebuilding plans to keep engagement strategies timely to reduce the risk of sending messages that fall flat or, at worse, offend customers.

Among the questions utilities should be constantly asking themselves when preparing for future uncertainty:

  • What if a vaccine does not become widely available in 2020, 2021, or even 2022?

  • What do programs, budgets, and delivery look like when consumer behavior has been permanently altered? For example, what do retail programs look like when brick-and-mortar shopping has largely migrated to digital platforms?

  • What is the impact on customer engagement and satisfaction when touchpoints move from physical locations like retail, home, and businesses to contactless program delivery?

  • What can utilities do to create and deliver value for their customers when the “normal” no longer applies?

 

Create Adaptable Programs

After evaluating the landscape and customer needs within its service territory, utilities are figuring out how to implement programs that are inherently flexible, adaptable, and intuitive for customers. For example, to support businesses struggling to stay afloat, developing programs or resources that cater to their needs is crucial, such as offering tips or programs for effective air filtration that not only improves indoor air quality, but also helps save energy. 

Additionally, many individual customers, faced with a volatile job market, are focused on reducing spending, requiring programs that emphasize energy cost-savings. In some cases, this translates to consumer interest in energy efficiency programs aimed at reducing monthly bills—for instance, Detroit-based utility DTE Energy saw an uptick in customer spending on energy efficient products, such as LED bulbs, as well as growing interest among homeowners in DIY efficiency projects. Since the Spring, the utility’s online marketplace has run several promotions focused on these products, including rebates and discounts, and directs customers to use the site to purchase products for home delivery—instead of venturing to their local store. 

It’s already been a long, difficult road, but now is not the time to go silent or complacent. We can’t count on things going back to the way they were before. But this moment is ripe with opportunity for forward-thinking utilities to lead the charge. Looking ahead, building strong and sustainable customer relationships will require fresh, innovative thinking and continuous, proactive planning for ongoing shifts in how COVID-19 impacts the market. 

Utilities are already unveiling innovative, flexible engagement models. For example, as we enter the new school year, parents are looking for  new ways to hold their children’s attention. Utilities like SMECO are tapping into children’s natural curiosity by providing an online “treasure hunt” that leads them through their home’s energy use. Once complete, a package arrives (mostly for the adults) with products like LEDs and advanced power strips. The kits introduce energy efficiency habits to not only the kids, but to parents as well. And the program is even helping SMECO meet its goal of reducing home energy usage by 56,172 gross wholesale megawatt hours by the end of 2020. 

Additionally, some utilities are conducting virtual energy audits via phone or video, instead of traditional in-home programs. An auditor walks the customer through the steps needed to provide data on their home’s efficiency, records the data, and produces personalized efficiency recommendations.

By adapting existing programs and developing new tools to meet this moment and prepare for future challenges, utilities can re-engage with an interested customer base in an impactful and safe way. 

Overall, utilities should consider prioritizing agility and directly connecting with customers to deliver continued empathy and authenticity, along with helpful tools, financial options and energy consumption solutions. As importantly, they will be able to forge more meaningful relationships with their communities in the COVID-19 economy and beyond.

Nancy Caplan's picture

Thank Nancy for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 5, 2020 9:54 pm GMT

What can utilities do to create and deliver value for their customers when the “normal” no longer applies?

This is such an important question-- to the customer they may not think immediately of their utility when it comes to the COVID situation and assume, expect, that service will continue normal and uninterrupted. And as the utility, it's important to deliver that-- unreliable power cannot be another aspect customers have to deal with at this stressful time. 

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