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Now is a critical time for utilities to interact with customers wisely

image credit: © Charnsitr | Dreamstime.com

When the coronavirus pandemic is over, people’s main memory of it likely won’t be how their electric utility interacted with them while it was going on.

Nonetheless, how electric utilities interact with their customers during the pandemic will go a long way to shaping their relationships with their customers in the future.

That means utilities now need to take more care than ever in their interactions with their customers, because whatever they do, right or wrong, could have an outsized impact. And while that presents some challenges, it also presents some opportunities.

Fortunately, many utilities already have some good will built up. The J.D. Power 2019 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Survey found that overall customer satisfaction among electric utility residential customers was up last year. Not surprisingly, reliability was a big driver of perceived performance. Another major factor, however, was community involvement. 

“Many of the lower performing brands need to do a better job of communicating their community involvement efforts such as employee volunteering and local donations [and] sponsorships,” John Hazen, the senior director of J.D. Power’s energy practice, said in the company’s press release about the survey. “This communication has shown to affect consumer awareness and satisfaction.”

The pandemic certainly provides utilities with a chance to contribute to their communities, and many are taking advantage of it.

Xcel Energy said earlier this week that it will sell a gas-fired power plant in Mankato, Minn., for $680 million, three months after buying it for $650 million, and spend more than two-thirds of its $30 million gain on the sale on corporate giving and COVID-19 relief efforts in its territory.

But while now is a critical time for utilities to do good, they also would do well not to tout their efforts too loudly.

“I'm hearing directly from many friends who are saying they're tired of the ‘we care’ messages that are flooding their inboxes,” Loretta Principe, the director of the energy practice at Makovsky Communications, which has offices in New York and Washington, D.C., wrote in an email.

Utilities, Principe wrote, should “send one ‘we care’ message and then prove it. Exceptional times require exceptional actions, such as suspending shut-offs; supporting programs that help underserved communities in their service areas; [and] partnering with community-based nonprofits to help those that are energy and food insecure.

“The mantra for utilities in this timeframe should be ‘do what’s right.’”

Utilities also need to be authentic. Despite the quip attributed to French writer Jean Giraudoux  — “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” — feigning sincerity is a risky way to try to gain customer loyalty in the best of times and it’s potentially disastrous now.

Global consulting firm ICF, which includes customer engagement in the portfolio of services it offers utilities, is helping its clients “connect with their customers and maintain their role as a trusted advisor by delivering clear and relevant information in a tone that is authentic and empathetic,” its commercial energy vice president, Nancy Caplan, said in an email.

Relevance is important. Consumers don’t want to be bothered with pitches for products and services they’ll likely never use.

“We’re advising our clients that messaging that focuses heavily on sales of services or programs irrelevant to customers misses the mark — and can critically risk brand reputation,” Caplan said.

At the same time, however, utilities can promote some services that benefit customers who have turned their homes into their offices. Energy efficiency is a good example, and while utilities can’t send out people to conduct in-person energy audits of their customers’ residences, they can point their customers to tools they can use to help cut their energy consumption.

“Rather than putting programs on hold, we are helping some utilities shift their delivery models to such things as virtual energy audits or DIY installation of smart home products,” Caplan said.

This also can be a good time for utilities to let their customers know of any apps or programs that can help customers save energy or consume it at times when it’s less expensive to buy.

For example, Alabama Power has a “Manage My Bill” webpage, which offers links to pages that let its customers do such things as calculate the daily power use of their appliances, track their daily energy use and peruse billing options to find the one that best suits their budget.

Customers may be interested in such webpages now not only because they can help them save money but also because many are spending more time online than they ever have in their lives.

“More content is being delivered and consumed online right now so it’s important to ensure your brand is not only present where consumers are gathering information, but has a relevant message that’s delivered in an appropriate tone,” Mary Winslow, a senior vice president at Luckie & Co., a marketing firm that works with Alabama Power, said in an email.

Utilities “need to have messaging, tips, and online resources that address this unique time and will help customers lower their power bill,” Winslow said.

 

Discussions

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Andy Gotlieb on Apr 10, 2020 2:30 pm GMT

Peter, I agree with pretty much everything you say here. Not that anyone wants to benefit from misery, but the coronavirus pandemic is a good chance for utilities to bolster their overall image.

As you mention, now is the time for utilities to show support for customers by showing that they care, whether that's by suspending shutoffs or deferring payments.

And it's always good when a utility can tout any money-saving features it can offer to its customers.

In addition, the point Loretta Principe made is especially salient. At this point, everyone is tired of the "we care" messages -- I've been deleted them unread from anyone who's still sending them for a couple weeks now. When a company overdoes sincerity, the unintended result is perceived insincerity.

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