This special interest group is where customer care professionals share tactics on how utilities are improving interactions with their customers. 


Utilities Don’t Underestimate Value of Emotional Connections

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Andrew Cope's picture
Vice President - Energy and Utilities Practice

20 year history of working in the regulated and deregulated utility industry. I have extensive experience in senior management and consulting in the areas of: call centers, CX, credit and...

  • Member since 2020
  • 3 items added with 5,460 views
  • Jul 28, 2021

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-07 - Utility Customer Care, click here for more

In February 2020, (which seems like a lifetime ago now) I wrote a piece for EnergyCentral called Digital Innovation for Utility Customer Engagement in which I talked about how typically regulated utility customers view their electric and gas providers in one of three simple ways:

  • My lights are on. My house is heated – “Great!”
  • My power and gas services are out. – “When is my service going to come back on?”
  • I can auto pay or regulate my monthly spend? – “Beautiful, I can set it and forget it!”

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As I said it seems a lifetime ago, as right after writing that article, COVID19 changed everything. But did it really? Let’s take a simplified look at how the “post pandemic” regulated utility customer views their electric and gas provider:

  • My lights are on, my house is heated – “Great, because this is my new workspace and now that I’m here all the time, just exactly what else could you be doing for me to make life easier or better for me”
  • My power and gas services are out – “When is my service going to come back on because if I miss a deadline, can’t take a call or am down for a few days, who is going to compensate me for my loss?” 
  • I can auto pay or regulate my monthly spend? – “That was great when I thought about this as a “convenience and forget it” notion, but now that my usage is much higher and you have my full attention, what specifically are you doing to help me?” 

So, let’s look at three different seismic shifts that the pandemic brought to American life and how regulated utilities can embrace these changes by creating emotional connections with their new customer service offering:

  1. People who lived near large cities are moving in droves to more rural settings, because they don’t need to commute to an office and want larger homes, but they are also new to your regulated area.
  2. Yes, those larger homes will require more of the energy product that you deliver, but they are not used to the cost difference or how to truly curb their usage and maintain their way of life.
  3. Lastly, your customers you’ve had for years, and that you have data on their habits for years have just experienced the highest unemployment rates of the century. They were your perfect consumers, but they are not used to any type of social assistance or financial deferral of keeping their accounts in good standing.

I purposely laid the three shifts out in this order, because these utility customer service emotional connection possibilities move from opportunity to empathy but make no value proposition above the other. All of them are ways to offer better utility customer service and in doing so, create emotional connections for each different consumer type. 

Hi, we’re the Johnson Family and we just moved to …

As you have new customers, and they go through your turn on processes you undoubtably tell them how to access their account online and everything that can provide them. Your Agents also typically tell them about your App too and how that same functionality is available there. Here is a wonderful way to walk them through the process of downloading the App itself and to also set up messaging services right away, so you can continually and individually ping them on things that would matter most to a person moving into your service area.

I love the example of T-Mobile and their T-Mobile Tuesday’s App. They wrote a great article:  Five Years of T‑Mobile Tuesdays: How a Fresh Take on the Loyalty Program Drives the Un‑carrier and their fresh take on customer appreciation and not being a typical rewards program. Their primary goal was to continuously say “thank you” to customers by providing simply easy access to free stuff and great deals—all without forcing customers to spend more with T-Mobile. Also – their App just isn’t designed for the account holder or the person who’s name the bill comes to, it’s for everyone on the plan, which expanded their thanking reach to typically everyone in the family. So, while the idea on thanking customers is great with national deals and even free stuff, it was a tremendous way to monetize off their captive customer audience, with weekly App message cadences, and thus created emotional connections consistently.

I also wrote in my February article: “Failure to make an emotional connection to your captive audience, just because it is captive, could prove to be a costly missed opportunity in the future.” and the vast majority of regulated utility App’s I have reviewed over the past months have typical smart home device resells or free devices in some cases, which are all great, but aren’t you missing the complete opportunity?

Create your own “Day of the Week Deal” and make it LOCAL to your service area. Remember, creating emotional connections also means supporting local businesses (again your customers too) and preferably businesses and services that are truly indigenous to your tariffed area with a regular App messaging cadence. These businesses spend millions each year on marketing efforts to the exact same customer population you serve (and their family members). Creating a deregulated revenue stream and engaging with your customers (particularly new to your area customers) is a value proposition that is waiting for you to take advantage of. The technological lift to get there in this era of digital transformation is a matter of weeks, rather than months to achieve.

Lastly, the trackable data that allows for the growth of these types of programs will be available to you immediately and will create more emotional connections to your utility.

Look at the $XX Energy Bill, wow this is way more than we paid in …

Again, here is a wonderful way to walk new customers through your App messaging services right away, so you can continually and individually ping them on their energy usage. But during their move in or transfer of service process, how many Utilities typically ask their new customers what their previous energy consumption, costs, and budgets were in the past?

A simple App gateway that either your Agent walks them through on the initial move in call, or post the App set up process, messages the new customer with an energy usage understanding (click the box) questionnaire.

This fulfils two meaningful emotional connections to your customers:

  1. It tells them you’re interested in being an energy partner in getting to know them, rather than just their Utility.
  2. It gives you the parameters you need to App message them as an individual when their usage goes beyond your understanding of what they expect.

The benefits to the customer are immediate notifications via a well valued App system and the benefits to your Utility would be constant and systematic customer outreach (based on their individual choices). It also conditions the customer to self-service their usage changes, rather than create any unknown and avoidable negative emotional connections with high bill complaints.   

Again, the technological lift to get there in this era of digital transformation is a matter of weeks, rather than months to achieve and better yet the trackable data will be available to you immediately to measure emotional connection benefits to your utility.

OK I lost my job 8 months ago and we’ve never been in this position before…

So, over the course of the last 12 month’s and while State and Federal laws have prevented many Utilities of any service disruptions due to non-payment, the consumer profiles of dramatically aged accounts have changed greatly. Typically, consumers who have had previous experiences with requiring social assistance and or provisional regulatory payment terms have been able to navigate this process with greater ease. The current large volume of people who are new to this state of indebtedness require a more empathic approach. One that also will build a stronger emotional connection to your Utility in the long term.

In my last article I spoke of the use of Nudge Innovations. The idea is to target this set of consumers with the approach of: Blog Pieces, Social Media Ad buys and Google Ad buys is a great way to lead this defined population to your hardship resources, versus traditional letters, emails, and telephone calls. The later suggests a collection activity which currently for most of these folks, their mortgages, high interest credit cards and auto payments are a constant drone and will ultimately cause an avoidance.

Your nudge messaging needs to be consistent and measured to match up the current data within your CIS system (pre versus post pandemic payment patterns to identify this customer group) and leading to resources that would work best for each consumer. What’s more is that the typical information you already have: Name, address, email etc., makes for amazing targeted social media ad buys, so you know the impressions are reaching the right people consistently and you’re getting the right click throughs.

Just remember that all these digital engagements nudge them towards account resolution programs that they typically have no idea exist. Which at the end of the day and just by the informational prompting by itself, will create long-term and long-remembered emotional connections to your Utility’s Customer Service.    

Utilities whose customer service efforts that fall short of creating emotional connections to their captive audience, typically prove to be costly missed opportunities in the future. These examples from other industries show how creating emotional connections to your customers (that you inherently have) can take your Utilities Customer Service to the next level and beyond. 

Andrew Cope's picture
Thank Andrew for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 28, 2021

Utilities are often more localized organizations with a footprint in a community, and the 'product' they sell is essentially to pretty much all aspects of daily lives-- both of these must create a sense of loyalty and dependence that builds into that emotional connection you talk about. 

One question-- do you think the trend towards digital tools & engagements is eroding some of those feelings? Having a person you would call or talk to on a regular basis about utility services reinforced these relationships, but autopay and engaging through an app are no doubt more personal. Is that something utilities need to be worried about? 

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