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Six Ways Utilities Can Deliver the “Care” in Customer Care

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Mike Patelski's picture
Partner, Energy & Utilities West Monroe

Mike is a Partner in the Energy & Utilities practice at West Monroe. Mike has experience working with electric, water, and gas utility companies, assisting them as they prepare for and...

  • Member since 2011
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  • May 28, 2020

This item is part of the Utility Customer Care - Spring 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

By: Michael Manfredo, Senior Principal, Customer Experience, West Monroe - Mike Patelski, Senior Manager, West Monroe

The need to engage with customers is largest when their needs are highest. Companies, including utilities, need to build a reservoir of trust and goodwill that will remain intact in the short and long term. The new reality we live in has created unprecedented challenges to human interaction. And as the world begins to re-emerge and recover in a new world, here are six ways utilities can help lead the charge to focus on the “care” in customer care.

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Start with empathy.

Customers are facing some hard realities, and dealing with their utility is not typically on their mind unless they face some immediate issue (outage, billing question, etc.). The last thing they want to do is spend time calling to resolve an issue, only to be greeted by an individual or organization who has little-to-no compassion for their current challenges or shows an unwillingness to help, only to be rushed off the phone to the next customer.

Utilities should focus on providing customers with the highest levels of empathy to ensure the customer is heard, supported, and satisfied to the best of their ability. Empathy is, among several definitions, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”. Empathy should resonate through communications sent to customers, actions taken, and decisions made, and should also be extended to frontline workers who care for your customers.

Better understand your customer.

The most effective customer care functions in utilities are those that best understand their customers’ needs and wants, along with their behaviors. No organization can appropriately care for their customers in an efficient and effective way without understanding the challenges they need to solve for the customer, which is based on understanding what the customer needs and how they need it delivered. This must extend beyond the typical residential customer to include the small business mom and pop shop, the large commercial & industrial client, and regional stakeholders.

Utilities can use the vast amount of customer data available (billing, usage, servicing, etc.), a proper Voice of the Customer program, and advanced analytics to understand the true needs of their customers. Using this information to segment out customers by needs and behaviors informs the many decisions a utility can make related to its operations (how to serve, programs to build, decisions to make, etc.).

Proactively reach out to customers with personalized recommendations and solutions.

Based on this customer understanding, leading utilities engage their customers proactively to provide services and products that best address the customers’ personalized needs. Utilities can better predict which customers are likely to pay their bill late (or not at all), and can proactively reach out to and work with the at-risk customers to sign up and participate in programs designed to provide financial assistance (limited-income programs, special rate programs, energy efficiency programs). By proactively providing the right solutions to customers at the right time, the utility will drive better engagement to build deeper relationships while also improving operational elements (like call volume reduction, reduce past-due accounts, etc.) to maximize the mutual benefits for each stakeholder.

Become the "utility advisor" customers need.

Another way to enable your customer care employees is shifting their role toward “higher value-add” activities and becoming the customers’ advisor related to electric, water, and gas usage and conservation. Customers are engaging with utilities increasingly complex ways (distributed generation, storage, closed-loop water systems, new usage patterns, etc.), which requires supporting new needs and questions. In order to meet these needs, utilities must provide customers with platforms and channels to address questions and actions that are considered self-service “table stakes” (how to pay a bill electronically, starting or stopping my service, submitting an outage notification, etc.).

The “utility advisor” should focus on supporting customers’ more complex inquiries about installing a distributed energy resource, reducing energy use at peak demand, or enabling water conservation. Not only will this fulfill the new needs of your customers, but the “advisor” role will provide a more engaging and fulfilling employee experience, driving higher retention (and reducing related employee costs). However, this shift requires the appropriate support through training, digital tools, and insights to enable and upskill employees to support these issues and questions.

Optimize your Remote Workforce to focus on the customer.

The pandemic has changed our day-to-day lives in numerous ways, perhaps nowhere more impactfully than the transition to a remote workforce. Organizations are struggling to efficiently operate and manage their remote call centers due to conflicting demands and priorities, overnight culture change, and limited technology capabilities. The downstream impacts of this upheaval can result in reductions in call efficiency and quality. Customer care organizations must utilize a comprehensive approach across people, process, and technology to enable its new remote workforce most effective.

This includes process improvements to increase service delivery times and productivity, workforce scheduling optimization, and channel rationalization. Ensuring the workforce is equipped with the necessary tools, whether hardware or software, will also enable a more productive work environment. Utilities can leverage cloud-based video platforms and activity data/dashboards to effectively manage team members and drive accountability.

Outside of the work to be done, utility organizations should maintain a sense of community built through new rituals such as daily stand-ups and onboarding virtual introductions that will improve team morale. These actions are key to improving engagement and retention among employees, which in turn will help to improve call quality and drive down hiring costs.

Close the loop with customers that are not satisfied with their experience.

Most utility customer care organizations are using at least a transactional Voice of the Customer program to understand the servicing experience customers receive. Not every interaction will go smoothly, and in those instances that customers indicate a negative experience, the utility must be prepared to follow-up and “close the loop” to understand what happened and how it can be resolved. It is imperative that Utilities partner closely with customers who are unhappy with their engagement experience to resolve their concern and build a deeper relationship. Additionally, customer care organizations should use this data to identify any systemic issues that need to be prioritized and addressed to reduce the cost of ongoing operational and experiential pain.

There is uncertainty in the world, but utility organizations can be examples of "doing the right things" for their customers - and broadly, their communities - by focusing on caring for their customers and employees. The more a utility engages with customers, the greater the opportunity they have to build a sense of loyalty and goodwill with their customers and set themselves up for success in reaching some of their long-term goals, all while providing opportunities to enable an engaged and fulfilled workforce to help deliver that long-term success.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 29, 2020

Based on this customer understanding, leading utilities engage their customers proactively to provide services and products that best address the customers’ personalized needs.

This is such an important one, and with the absolute treasure chest of data that a utility has for its customers-- the kind of insights that would make businesses in other industries drool-- it's right at their fingertips. Too often, though, customers are happy to consider their utility just that once per month bill and then reaching out otherwise only if there is a problem. Utilities need to recognize that if that relationship is to change to be more of a 'trusted energy advisor' that it's the utilities who have to create that change. 

Mike-- I'm wondering if you're aware of any studies or research into how often proactive actions like the ones you mention are successful in not just reaching the customer for that single initiative but in converting customers into ones with mindsets to partner with their utility more often? I would have to think at least anectdotally this is a successful strategy that's worth the investment 

Lisa Kaye's picture
Lisa Kaye on Jun 8, 2020

This is a great article.  There are many technologies that can help enable some of the customized experience to your consumers.  One of those is Blockchain technology.  Using Blockchain in utilities will transform customer experience and give consumers more control over their utility consumption and production. It will enable consumers to produce their own energy and sell back to the grid, which will encourage energy-saving amongst the population – the more energy saved, the more can be sold to the grid, resulting in more income for the producer.  There are many other technologies that can help.   What are some of the technologies that others are seeing?

Mike Patelski's picture
Thank Mike for the Post!
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