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Utilities Should Consider These 3 Areas When Upgrading CX

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Karen Marcus's picture
Freelance Researcher and Writer Final Draft Communications, LLC

In addition to serving as an Energy Central Community Manager, Karen Marcus has nearly 25 years of experience as a content developer within the energy and technology industries. She has worked...

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Energy utilities haven’t historically gotten high marks for their customer-friendly approach. They’ve been criticized for limited service hours, convoluted websites, unfriendly representatives, a lack of digital communication alternatives, and much more.

But, as consumers increasingly experience customer-centric service from other companies they do business with, they expect the same from their utilities. Things like ease of paying bills and resolving issues, proactive communication, and convenient digitized solutions are part of their daily commercial interactions, and they expect the same from every entity they patronize.

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Martin Dunlea, writing for Power Engineering International explains, “The utilities industry is waking up to the realization that they have to evolve their customer experience [CX], and find new ways to engage with customers and meet their changing requirements. This involves bringing [their CX] in line with the experiences delivered by retail, finance and telco service providers.”

While utilities presently have numerous other challenges to deal with, getting CX right should be a high priority — not just to maintain happy, loyal customers, but also to lower customer care costs and enhance regulatory standings. Below are suggestions in three key areas where utilities can focus to align their CX efforts with modern customer needs.  

1. Relationships

Any CX effort must start with considering the relationship between the utility and customers. This is much easier said than done because not all customers are the same, and various groups (e.g. residential versus business customers, or older versus younger consumers) may have different needs.

The foundation of relationships is trust, which can be easy to lose with just one wrong move. Therefore, utilities must use proactive communication, offer opportunities for positive interactions, and provide useful communication channels to create positive impressions over time.

Proactive communication means being transparent about:

  • Anything going on within the utility that might affect customers
  • How to prepare for a storm, and what the utility is doing before, during, and after it to ensure service continuity
  • What the utility is doing for and in the communities it serves

The opportunity for positive interactions means starting a two-way conversation with customers about their needs and concerns, rather than simply being the target of angry calls twice per year when their power goes out.

Useful communication channels include apps, as well as texting and messaging options. Yet, traditional voice and email contact should still be available as well so each customer can get in touch based on the medium they’re most comfortable with. (See more on customer-friendly technology below.)

2. Processes

Once a relationship-based CX strategy has been established, utilities can build on it with processes that are sensitive to how customers navigate their experience with the utility (also known as customer journeys).

Brian Kracik, writing for Smart Customer Service suggests that companies “proactively engage customers at key moments of individual journeys.” He continues with what this might look like using a utility-linked app: “Hoping that customers take the first step in contacting them is primitive. Companies need to do more to deliver exceptional experiences by following the in-app customer journey context and prompting customers to effortlessly engage at the right time, via a single click or touch, such as during new user registration or for timely support when they are experiencing issues.”

Whether app-based or not, the key is to provide communication and support during typical events, such as signing up for or upgrading service, cancelling service, troubleshooting, or looking for advice.

The more personalized the experience can be, the better, and utilities can use data analysis to drive a more individualized and seamless approach.

3. Technologies

To support relationships and processes, utilities must supply the right technologies, including the following:

  • App or platform to track energy usage and deliver personalized recommendations for energy reduction
  • System for easily paying bills or adding services
  • Contact center with 24/7 availability
  • Analytics platform to provide an omnichannel experience across all contact streams, manage DERs, and detect where customers may be experiencing issues
  • Notification system to alert customers to outages or other critical information
  • Robust customer information system (CIS) for tracking interactions
  • Texting, messaging, or chatbot systems, as well as social media availability to ensure easy contact when needed

Of course, the technology mix for each utility will be different and, again, should be based on what will best support the relationships and processes that undergird a robust CX approach.

John Lincoln, Customer Experience Leader at Duke Energy, explains one more factor that all utilities should keep in mind, and that is the importance of a customer-focused culture. In an episode of the Forrester podcast What It Means, he comments, “It really doesn’t matter how sophisticated your systems are, [or] how great your product offering is…if your employees aren’t aligned and believing in what you’re doing, and then providing really great experiences.”  

Discussions

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Sonam Jain's picture
Sonam Jain on Dec 18, 2018

Thanks Karen. I think utilities need to adopt a better way of communicating with their customers, either to build relationships or adopting new technologies and processes. The central point is to have better communication. As per my opinion, Email is still a preferred choice for the utilities for promotional activities, but social media and chatbots are keeping up well in the race.

Karen Marcus's picture
Karen Marcus on Dec 18, 2018

Absolutely, communication is a foundation for positive CX. I'd be interested to know from you or other members about communication channels, methods, messages, or other best practices you may have tried -- that turned out well...or didn't. 

Raviteja Palanki's picture
Raviteja Palanki on Dec 21, 2018

Hi Karen, Also one big challenge is consistency and seamless movement of the communication. Since especially during an emergency, loads of information might be exposed to consumer via so many channles today including traditional like Television, News etc. Hence Utilities also need to ensure robust processes set up for the digital era where panic is better managed, and right actions are effectively communicated across the board

Karen Marcus's picture
Karen Marcus on Dec 26, 2018

Great point, Raviteja. It seems like emergencies are a time when utilities "make or break" relationships with customers. What are some strategies for ensuring the public is getting the right information during these critical events? 

Raviteja Palanki's picture
Raviteja Palanki on Dec 27, 2018

Karen, the below is my personal opinion

One key noticable change in digital era, is the opportunity for the Utilty Communications to reach the people directly and individually through every digital medium, without the risk of wrong info. being passed through fake news from others etc.

1. First starting point begins with creation of a robust Emergency Communication Plan as part of Emergency Planning & Prepardness.

2. This plan will also need to align with an omni channel model of communications thats also takes into account for two way communications like feedback from users in effected areas.

3. We can integrate intelligent virtual agents like Chatbots across Utility social, web, mobile, Customer MyAccount channels that can prove to be immensely helpful to respond appropriately & consistently common critical queries can be immediately addressed, and only involve a human agent when it becomes a complex query. This is important as people in panic need not wait for longer durations, for a human intervention from call center. 

4. The Alerts & Notifications messages across the board will need to be tailored as per the geo location and impact in those areas and restoration plan of actions. 

and surely more steps..

Karen Marcus's picture
Karen Marcus on Jan 10, 2019

Excellent list. It sounds like the foundation of effective external communication with customers is *internal* communication to establish the utility's plan for emergency scenarios, then walking customers through the effects of that plan. Would you agree?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 28, 2018

Poor customer service at utilities doesn't happen because they don't know how to improve it, but because there's no incentive to improve it. Like those of any monopoly, a utility's customers are at their mercy. If customers don't like the service, what can they do?

Some might say blame for poor service lies not at the utility, but with public utility commissions. When commissioners step up to the plate and fine electricity, internet, gas, or water companies for poor customer service, customers see improvement in a hurry. But since most commissioners are appointed by state governors, they have no direct incentive to address customer experience issues either.

If customers really want to improve service at their state's public utilities, getting legislation making PUC commissioner an elected post is their best chance at holding them accountable. They'll be amazed at how communicative, responsive, and engaged commissioners become when their jobs are on the line - even without app, texting, or messaging options.

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