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Episode #40: 'Elevating Customer Care for Electric Cooperative Members’ with Sean Vanslyke, CEO and General Manager of SEMO Electric Cooperative [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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  • Jul 27, 2021 11:45 am GMT
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The landscape encompasses a wide variety of power providers, and while investor-owned utilities are often the largest and most influential, it’s the smaller players that may be setting the bar for customer care. Specifically, electric cooperatives recognize their end consumers not just as ratepayers, but indeed as members of the electric co-op, and the smaller and more local nature of these power providers empowers them to more easily meet customers where they are, innovate in new ways to educate and engage those end consumers, and create a customer care ecosystem that’s the envy of larger utilities.

To peel back the curtain on the unique relationship electric co-ops have with their members, today’s episode brings in the CEO and General Manager of Missouri’s SEMO Electric Cooperative, Sean Vanslyke. Sean walks podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester through the engagement SEMO’s utilized over the past year and a half to aid its members through COVID, the keep power costs affordable, to empower its surrounding community, and to educate customers and employees alike about every component of the utility business. While an electric cooperative has a more moderate budget and footprint, the largest and smallest utilities alike have many lessons to learn from how, why, and where Sean Vanslyke has created customer service opportunities in his service area.

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

See also an exclusive bonus clip at the bottom of this post only available to members of Energy Central to hear!

Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

Key Links

Sean Vanslyke's Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/sean-vanslyke/about

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Welcome to another episode of Energy Central's Power Perspectives Podcast. This is the show made exclusively for the utility professional and stakeholders in the power sector to hear from leaders, innovators, and game-changers across the energy industry. And today's guest certainly fits the bill. When it comes to the energy sector. We often think of the investor-owned utilities, the ConEds, the Exelons, the PG&Es, and the other majors. And that's not surprising given that over 70% of Americans are served by an IOU. However, there are nearly five times as many electric cooperatives across the nation than there are IOUs, and they account for about 13% of the meters on the grid. Co-ops average about 25,000 customers compared to the average IOU that serves approximately 650,000 customers. And while that means each co-op has a smaller well of resources to pull into, the smaller size comes with the advantage of actually being closer to the customer.

Jason Price:
These co-ops tend to be trusted and involved members of the communities they serve. Even more notably, co-ops aren't driven by profits like IOUs, meaning their incentives can empower them to take some different risks. Given that July is the month of customer care for Energy Central, we wanted to talk to someone at the electric co-op who can speak to the unique opportunities that co-ops are able to offer for their customers, as this perspective creates lessons learned that to the astute observer can actually be applied to all stakeholders across the grid. Matt, where I live in New York, I'm served by a major IOU in Con Edison. Do you live in the service area of a co-op?

Matt Chester:
No, Jason, I'm covered by a municipal utility that has some of the same small footprint benefits of a co-op, but I'm really eager to learn more about how the co-op range may differ from our guest today.

Jason Price:
Absolutely. And we're lucky to have snagged, for this episode, the CEO of an electric co-op who's deeply passionate about the care they're able to provide for their customers. But before we introduce them, let's give a quick shout out to our sponsors who make this show possible, and let us bring insightful discussions from the best minds in industry to our listeners. To West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformation. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, aid EMS deployments, DER and cybersecurity. To Esri. Esri is an international supplier of geographic information, GIS software, web GIS, and geo database management applications.

Jason Price:
To Guidehouse, formerly Navigant Research, a premier market research and advisory firm covering the global energy transformation. To Anterix. Anterix is focused on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy, transportation, logistics, and other sectors of our economy. And to ScottMadden, a management consulting firm serving clients across the energy utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include transmission and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy markets, rates and regulations, corporate sustainability, and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize department and entire companies, and implement married initiatives.

Jason Price:
And now onto today's guest. We're fortunate enough to be joined today by Sean Vanslyke, the CEO and general manager of SEMO Electric Cooperative out of Missouri. However, if you ask him, Sean might tell you he prefers the title of head coach or even chief custodian of his electric co-op. And that will start to tell you a bit about how Sean approaches the role of a co-op and a community. SEMO stands for the Southeast Missouri Electric Cooperative, and they serve member consumers in Ballinger, Cape Girardeau, Mississippi, New Madrid, Scott, and Stoddard counties, where they provide customers with both electric and broadband. Founded in the 1930s, SEMO Electric Cooperative has grown to be the key utility for over 6,000 subscribers for broadband, and continue to serve thousands of homes, farms, and businesses with electricity.

Jason Price:
Sean recognizes that everything that exists for utility, whether an IOU or a co-op, is there because of consumers and members. While others might have images of generation plants and grid wires dancing in their heads, Sean seems to stay focused on the customer experience above all, because that's the end of the line. And he's carried that perspective over the past decade that he's held the role at SEMO Electric Cooperative. And that's why you can see Sean's fingerprints across the host of programs we'll be chatting with them today about. From responding to the pandemic, to offering a prepaid model, to instituting a fully immersive experience to learn about the utility called Camp SEMO, Shaun's a passionate guy with a lot of knowledge to share, so we don't want to waste another minute of today's episode without him. Let's welcome Sean Vanslyke to the Power Perspectives Podcast.

Sean Vanslyke:
Well, good afternoon, thank you for having me, I appreciate it. It's a great opportunity for us to be able to tell our story and share our story because we really are changing lives here in Southeast Missouri, and people are excited about what we're doing. So thank you.

Jason Price:
Thank you as well. Sean, we really appreciate and thrilled to have you on the show. So can you start by giving a bit of an overview in how your role of a co-op differs from your peers in the same position at an IOU or even a municipal utility?

Sean Vanslyke:
I don't want to pretend that I know what they do, but I did spend 14 years at an IOU and I had eight different jobs. I guess they couldn't find the right spot for me, but I had a tremendous learning opportunity. Went through a couple of mergers and acquisitions. I got to learn a lot about a lot of different things, and from regulation to deregulation to rate making to public relations, legislative relations, just a lot of different areas I was able to touch and spend time in. But the one thing that always come back and always remember, it was always about the consumers. And we went through a period of time when I was at IOU that way we almost had to file for bankruptcy and we were really close and we had employees who would actually put duct tape over their name on their shirts.

Sean Vanslyke:
And that was kind of embarrassing, and the pride factor, we had to get that back, and we worked really hard to get our JD Power score back up to the top. And at the time, over a four year period, I think we built that back to where I was at, and we improved our safety record from horrendous down to working towards zero. But today in the cooperative world, and I've been here a little over 10 years now, the difference is I think we're much more nimble. We can be quicker, we can be faster, but we also have a lot less resources. So if I pull a team together on prepaid metering or pull a team together on broadband, it's likely to have two or three of the same people in the same meeting, because we're just not that deep.

Sean Vanslyke:
Now, not all co-ops are like us. Some co-ops are much larger than we are, but you have to work with what you have. And I think early in my career, I learned... I can remember when I was in my early 20s, I started coaching soccer for my daughter's team, who's now 32 years old, but that first time, one of my most embarrassing moments is I asked the referee for a time out and he looked at me and he said, "Son, there are no time outs in soccer." And I thought, "Well, I need to go to school." So I went to the soccer school, if you will, and got my certificates.

Sean Vanslyke:
But they taught me something called the SAID principle, S-A-I-D, specific adaptation to imposed demands. And that's exactly what we have to do here. But it's also what I did at the IOU. You take what you have, you go out and try to find more resources, more people, but you do with what you have and you work really hard. I look back now, I learned some of that growing up with my grandparents on a dairy farm as well. You just sometimes have to work with what you have and hope for more and try to work to getting more to help other people.

Jason Price:
Sean, prior to our conversation today, leading up to it, we talked about your connections and commitment to the community, but you also look at your customers in a different way. You refer to them as members. Why is that?

Sean Vanslyke:
In the cooperative, where all the people who actually serve are actually our members, are actually the owners of the cooperative. So when they come in and they sign up, they become members at that time. And we go through a process every year, when we close our books, if you will, if we have any margins or profits, we actually give them back to those individuals, to those members, to those businesses. And they'll actually get a check. So every October here, we may send a check for $15, we may send a check for 2 or 3,000 or 20,000 to some of our members that actually own us. It's just called a capital rotation and that money that they pay their bill, part of that money goes into our cooperative to help us sustain and run our business. And again, if we're profitable, if we have margins left over, we rotate that capital back out.

Sean Vanslyke:
In the traditional IOS sense or a municipality's collecting the bills, it's putting back in to build their streets and you can do what you want with you rate base there. If I'm an IOU, I'm working on it for a greater return or return on my investment. And a lot of cases that's regulated, or they're trying to get a certain rate back. In this cooperative world, it's just much different. Most of the cooperatives operate like we do. Some actually apply those margins or pay back that check. They'll actually take it off their bill, the monthly bill at some point during the year. But it just depends on how... If we're successful, our members are successful as well. And it's not a lot of money because we're working on a different model. We're not trying to make a lot of money, but we do need financial stability and we need to be made whole each year.

Matt Chester:
Sean, just a follow up question on that. Do you find that the difference in both the structure of these members, as opposed to just customers, and even the language you use in that way, do you think that has a tangible impact in how the people in your service area think of the utility customer relationship?

Sean Vanslyke:
That's a great question because we talk about this quite often in circles that I'm in, and I think if you went back to the 1930s, the cooperatives were formed 80 some years ago because the IOUs traditionally wouldn't come out and serve the farmland because instead of having 10 or 20 or 30, or in some cases now in your larger places, 50 or 100 meters or even more than that per mile, we're out here serving people sometimes with one or two or three meters per mile. So as the generations change, and we go from the 30s to 40s, to the 60s, to 80s and 90s, and now into the 2000s, we're losing those stories of people who said, "Oh, I got to read last night because now I have light in my house."

Sean Vanslyke:
And we're losing some of those stories, but when people get checks, I think it still resonates with them that they are part of a cooperative. But I do think as we get further and further away from those generations that have experienced electricity for the first time, we're losing some of that. But I think now, though, after COVID people are starting to appreciate the co-ops even more because we're local. We're right here, they can come in, they can see us, but they could still reach out to us and talk to a person. And I still think that makes a big difference. And we're seeing on the broadband side, now that we're bringing them broadband and fiber fast internet into people's homes, they're getting the sense that, "Wow, you're doing this while other companies aren't doing this." So there's a resurgence a little bit towards the cooperative model. I don't want to oversell it, if you will, but I don't want to undersell it. I think the fact that we're local is the most important thing.

Jason Price:
And on that note, it would be interesting to learn more about what's going on locally with your members. It's been a tough and challenging year across the country. Certainly the economic turmoil from the pandemic and the end of shutoff moratoriums is either close approaching or has arrived. High summer demand, general anxiety about their utility bills. Share with us, how do you support customers during these times?

Sean Vanslyke:
Well, if I go back to pre-COVID, we did not have drive-through facilities for our members to come and pay bills, if you will. And if I'm in the IOU world, most or several of them have not had lobbies for a long, long time. But being local, and the fact that we sell ourselves pan-local, we didn't have drive-through windows. So what do we do in March? We went out and we bought portable buildings, and within about 48 hours we had temporary drive up facilities available to our members. And even today we still have thousands of people using those. We're almost complete with a permanent drive-through in one of our facilities. And as soon as we get that one done, we'll start building another permanent facility at our main headquarters for our members to use to pay their bills, because they still like coming into our offices or they still like to come here and pay their bill.

Sean Vanslyke:
And in a financial sense, if I was in a different world, that doesn't make any sense at all, because I just push people to electronic payments, I push them to the phone app which we have, I push them to pay on the phone. I just switch them and I move them. But in these local areas, going back to the local things, that's what we're different about. That's what makes us more nimble. And I think at the end of the day, doing the cost benefit analysis for what we have to do, we can serve those people quite well by doing that. And I think we're seeing a great growth in our pre-paid program, where people are able to come in and manage their own electricity use by using prepay. We have almost 10 to 15% of our members on that now, and it just continues to grow month over month and we watch and track that number. And I think that's the way of the future.

Sean Vanslyke:
If I could spin the clock all the way back to 1938, that's probably how we started this business. We all have families or grandparents or you know somebody that might've owned the small general store at one point, and you could go in there and charge gas, but gasoline, for the most part, you go to the gas station today and you pay for it before you use it. I think electricity and natural gas and a lot of utilities should be on the prepay model because I think it makes people pay more attention, and I think it helps them in the long run more than it helps the utility or helps the business model, if you will.

Jason Price:
Right. Well, we wanted to ask you about that, since you brought it up prepaid. Tell us, how does it work and how does it benefit the customer?

Sean Vanslyke:
So we'll have a member come in and sign up for prepay and perhaps maybe they're getting into a new home or they're renting a home. They're not sure what the usage is, and we try to educate them based on the past 12 to 24 months, here's your typical bill that you'll be experience there. And they come in and this way they don't have to go through a credit check, they don't have to have a large deposit. They really don't even have a contract. They come in and start with a balance of $25 and then electronically on their phone, they're able to add money to their account when they need it, much like people are used to doing that with their cell phone. By the card with the minutes, or I buy the SD card or whatever I plug into my phone that has the minutes on it. SD card is probably not the right term in today's world, but you just go out there and buy minutes, and it's the same function.

Sean Vanslyke:
And they're able to watch their daily use, if not hourly, they can sit there and watch their use, and if they want to turn something off, they can, and if they want to save money, they can. But it really moves that responsibility over to them and lets them control their life. And I think that's where we all need to get to because we're trying to make their life better. There's a balance. We just have to keep educating people and help them understand what they're dealing with. Because if I don't have prepay, I just use and use and use, and then, "Oh, a bill shows up and I might have bill shock," and you mentioned that, Jason, with the high summer bills where it's been hot, and my daughter lives in Seattle. They're experience heat out there that's incredible out there, but I think only 40% out there or so have air conditioning. So they're not going to experience that.

Sean Vanslyke:
If we had 110 degrees here in the Midwest, everybody has air conditioning, the high bill complaints will be through the roof right now. We all experience that. We go through different cycles. And every utility, whether you're a big, small, co-op, IOU, muni, you're going to go through that cycle either with summer bills or winter bills at some point every couple of years. It's just the way it is. But is this something we have to pay attention to it and we have to reach out to people. And even here, when we've had high winter bills back in February, we reached out to our members early on in January and said, "We're expecting an extremely cold February," and we didn't know it was going to get that cold, but we try to educate people and say, "Here's what you can do," and then when we had high bills, we reached out to our members and said, "Here's what's happening and what can we do to help you?" Does make a difference.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. Well your passion and your drive for success is admirable and you certainly have tried to solve local challenges in the community. So with that in mind, take us through the Camp SEMO. What's it about and what can you share with our listeners?

Sean Vanslyke:
Just kind of a funny story, when I came here in 2012, my first three or four days was actually at the state capital in Jefferson City, Missouri. Interviewed with the board and talked to them about joining SEMO Electric. I met them. I left Peoria, Illinois and drove four or five hours and got to the capital, and I spent my first three or four days in the job there, and then I came here and I asked the employees, "What do you want?" And they said, "We want pride. We want to go to Walmart and be really proud of our cooperatives." So we started down that path. But what I've learned quickly is that we had people who hadn't been exposed to all aspect of our business, meaning that the billing department didn't necessarily understand the metering department or the metering department didn't understand the warehouse, and you just go on through that with the linemen and just keep working through that.

Sean Vanslyke:
And I'd seen that at the IOU world and tried to work on it there. And here, because we're so nimble and we can make decisions, we started a program called Camp SEMO. And what that allowed was our employees to actually rotate through every department over a one day period or two day period, and they got to see how each department fits together. So in the morning we started at 7:30 with safety, then eight o'clock, they go to member services, and then they go to billing and go to accounting and go metering and dispatch, and they rotate through the day like that. And then in the afternoon, they go out and ride with a one man service truck for the afternoon. And in the evening we fly them up 50 feet into a bucket truck. And then when they come in on Tuesdays, they go with the construction crews and we put a shovel in their hand and get out there and probably put a pole in the ground and then the afternoon they do a fiber installation, they do a drop and they do an install.

Sean Vanslyke:
So in a two day period, they get to learn our business. So every new employee that we have, once they've been here for about six months... COVID has stopped us a little bit here and we're going to restart it, because we've got about six people we need to put through there. But Camp SEMO is something that has grown and grown and we've had probably over 100 people go through it, and why I say that is because our bankers have come our insurance company has come. Safeelectricity.org, which I serve on the board, those folks are coming. We just have a of... Generation people have come to attend because they come to learn what it means to look a member at the end of the line in the eyes. And they understand what it is that we're trying to deliver.

Sean Vanslyke:
And what we have found, and we've expanded it just from our employee base now to all of our partners, and we have a waiting list right now, it's probably... I've got six members of team SEMO that need to go through it, but I probably have a waiting list of 10 or 12 people that want to go through it from outside of our footprint, our building here, because they want to come and learn the business. And this is something that could be done at any cooperative and it can be done anywhere. People just have to be willing to put the time. And what's great about Camp SEMO is I'm not teaching it. Everybody's teaching it. So if you sit in dispatch, you go back there and you sit with a dispatcher for 30 minutes and she tells you what's going on.

Sean Vanslyke:
And when you're out with the construction period, we've been out there and why real life stuff happens. One time a car hit the pole and we just had to have the person who was with us, we had to say, "You need to stand here and don't move and we're going to respond to this." So it's a real life thing. But when you teach other people, you tend to learn yourself, and people's questions that you get, "Why do you do it that way," it makes us stop sometimes and say, "I'm not sure why we do it that way. Maybe there's a better way."

Jason Price:
Well, it sounds like a great program. And since you came from the IOUs, do you think that something like this is exportable?

Sean Vanslyke:
I think it can be done anywhere. I tried to do a little bit of that when I was at the IOU and send people out to the operations areas. People need to experience what's at the end. What is it that we're trying to do? And also my people [inaudible 00:20:08] the why of everything. But I really believe that you have to understand what it is that you're trying to deliver. What are you trying to get to? And I think even our generation people that we've had here, we've been blessed because we have a power plant about an hour away from us. We've been able to send our people down to the power plant. And when they come back, they say, "Wow, I didn't know all this happened. I didn't know it took this." Well, when we bring the power plant people here, they look and say, "I didn't know it took all that to get that done."

Sean Vanslyke:
So there's a mutual... Not admiration so much, but a respect for what we're doing and what we're going through. And have a little empathy of what it takes to do each thing. Just like what you're doing, Jason, you're recording this, but after you get done there's a lot of work to get it ready to put it out there. You just don't push a button and ship it out. It's not done until you do your thing with that. And I think a lot of us, if we just sat back and just think about what it takes to deliver, whether it's getting gas or eating at a restaurant right now, because short-staffed, and how much work people are having to go through, sometimes we just need to chill out and relax and say, "That person's probably doing the best that they can," and to have an appreciation for what other people go through. And that's what Camp SEMO allows us to do.

Jason Price:
It's a beautiful concept, no doubt. Well, Sean, we really appreciate your insight, your professional insight, and you've given us an opportunity to learn more about yourself. We want to take that one step further. We have something called the lightning round where we ask a question and you have a one word or phrase as a response. So we've got five we want to ask you, five questions. Are you ready?

Sean Vanslyke:
I'm ready.

Jason Price:
Okay. If you could invite anyone, present day or historical, to a dinner party, who would you choose?

Sean Vanslyke:
Based on what I went through in 2020, and I have to say 2020 with the best word I've heard to describe 2020 was revealing. A lot of things are revealed to myself. We've been married 33 years, but at this point in my life, I think I just invite my wife on a date to go to dinner.

Jason Price:
Best piece of advice you've ever received?

Sean Vanslyke:
I think I had a mentor, his name was Scott Sisal, and he taught me to run my own race, leave emotion out of it, and stick to the facts. I know that you asked for one piece, but that's three pieces together, and I think when we run our own race and we leave the emotion out and we try to stick to the facts, the decisions that we make tend to be pretty close to the right ones.

Jason Price:
What's your biggest guilty pleasure?

Sean Vanslyke:
I really want a Diet Coke right now because I gave it up. I gave up caffeine January 1st, 2020, without knowing that we're going to go through COVID, and I'm sitting here looking at a bottle of water and there's a Diet Coke within 10 feet of me in a refrigerator, and it just sits there and I would love to drink that Diet Coke. It's hard on my system. I'm addicted to it. So I'm trying.

Jason Price:
Something that your coworkers may not know about you?

Sean Vanslyke:
I love to go to the river and camp. So my wife and I, I like to go and will take books. I take my laptop. We go usually where I can find a signal and sit and do things. I really enjoy that and I like to go camp.

Jason Price:
And lastly, what are you most proud of?

Sean Vanslyke:
That is a terrific question, and I've got to say on a personal level, just proud of my wife and daughter and son and our families that we have, and from a professional standpoint, I'm just so proud of the people that have helped me in my life, but now as I get older and think about what a legacy might be, I just get so excited when I see people who do things or get a new job or do something that they never thought they could do. And it takes me back all the way back to when I was coaching soccer and I would see a young person score a goal for the first time, or I would see them block a goal or a basket in basketball, or even in football, whatever it is as I coach, and that pure excitement that they did something they didn't know they could do. And now to watch adults do that, that is something I'm really proud of. And to watch people grow and just grow and spread their wings.

Jason Price:
Well, I appreciate that, Sean, and we finished the round and you know what we want to give you the last word. So knowing that utility CEOs and decision makers are listening in, what final word of advice do you want to spread to the industry?

Sean Vanslyke:
I think being intentional is really important, but I've added some words to that and that's be consistently and inclusively intentional about what we do and what decisions that we make. Everybody is watching us in today's world and the cancel culture and all this stuff that we've got to deal with, but ultimately it's about making people's lives better and giving them reliable energy, reliable broadband, whatever that might be. I just think that you can expand that to any business that you're in. We all have to make a living to take care of our families in some fashion, but how do we want to be remembered? And I think if you sit back and you think about it every day, just be intentional about what you're doing and try to be positive about what you're doing. I think if we keep pushing forward and we keep trying to do what we think is right, everybody will be fine, and we'll make it through. We're going to make it through this pandemic, whether it comes back or not. We just got to keep expecting to show up every day and do our best.

Jason Price:
Well, this conversation has really illuminated the important role of the local utility. I want to thank you again for sharing this with us today. We'll be keeping an eye on SEMO Electric Cooperative to see what new initiatives you continue to put into the world. Thank you for joining us today.

Sean Vanslyke:
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Jason Price:
Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. And for those who are members of Energy Central, be sure to check out the site post for this podcast and you'll find bonus clips of content we didn't have time for in the full episode. You won't want to miss it. See you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


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The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

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