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Building the utility-customer relationship that lasts

In Fort Worth, Texas, this week, electric and gas utility customer service executives from across the country shared experiences and learned new approaches to engaging customers.

Two days at the AGA/EEI Customer Service conference delivered up nearly 50 pages of notes. As I head home, I'd like to share a little bit of what I learned this week.

General sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday provided new ideas and approaches to consumer/customer engagement.

"There is a transformation taking place from a physical product orientation with a bit of customer experience in the mix," Blue Space Consulting's Roy Barnes told us. "The reality is, we have got to be proactive in making this happen." The problem, however, is that, as this transformation occurs, "the customer isn't in most customer vision statements. Most companies are built from the inside out," he said, without the customer in the mix.

Touch points are important, Barnes said, in any customer experience. "Touch points are all of the physical, communication and human interactions your customer experiences over the life cycle of your customer relationship. At any touch point, the experience is being formed," Barnes said.

Barnes used one metaphor I especially liked to clarify the importance of mapping the intended customer experience. "In order for a GPS [global positioning system] to work, you need to know where you're going," he said. "Describe your customer experience in such a way that contains the [experiential and emotional response] you want them to experience."

Peter Honebein, principal at Customer Performance Group, built upon the concepts raised  by Barnes, and discussed the concept of creating do-it-yourself customers, otherwise described as customer co-creation of value. In this model, customers have a value-creating role in the experience.

The co-production experience model, Honebein explained, is created through vision, access, incentive and expertise. The vision connects the goals and feedback. "That's where performance shoots up substantially," he said.

Access is the environment you design for customers -- processes, people, tools and interface  -- and incentives include both rewards and punishments, as well as negative reinforcement (i.e., making something unpleasant enough to flee it) and the removal of punishing conditions.

And the expertise? In this model, that's applying methods to educate customers.

There's customer experience, and then there is the customer relationship. Both are important. The customer experience, Honebein explained, is the physical or tangible connection, and the customer relationship that exists.

A desirable relationship, he said, is proactive (trying to do something for a customer before they ask), mutually beneficial (a customer is achieving his or her goals, and the utility is achieving its goals as well) and collaborative (with the customers as the co-creators of value. A "Father Knows Best" paternalistic attitude no longer works -- it's more effective to look at the experience through the eyes of the customer.

The "Five First Principles" Honebein suggests include:

  • Embrace customer-centered design.
  • Blend national and emotional experiences.
  • Engage in small, observable adoption steps.
  • Segment by observable actions.
  • Use action research to drive evolution.

"Segmenting by observable actions enables you to watch the innovation process and make adjustments," he told us. "When you're designing products and services, 'plant a lot of grass and watch where the paths emerge.' That's where the customer experience comes from. There's a whole wide opportunity for really great customer experiences."

Todd Arnold, managing principal of Smart Customer Insights (and a recent retiree from Duke Energy), discussed the impact technology innovation used in other areas of a utility customer's life. "Disruptive technology innovation is more frequent (now)," Arnold said, "and eActivity is being adopted across all ages, all demographics. Ubiquitous new platforms appear quickly.

"The most disruptive new technology? Apple. Over 300 million devices are now running IOS in less than five years," Arnold said, as iPhones binged all over the hall, announcing new e-mail and new text messages.

"What does this mean? For utilities, your customer is always connected, always on. This connectivity is having a real impact because of the experience your customers are having ... We are going to have to accelerate our capabilities. We need to rapidly accelerate our customer service," he said.

"How smart will your customers think you are? Whether we like it or not, our customers are forming new standards of excellence in customer services."

The solution? "You don't start with the technology. The technology is a means to an end. You start with the customer," Arnold advised.

Customer expectations, he said, include affordability, reliability, convenience, clean, safe and back-of-mind.

"The best way to start is to zero in on their pain points," Arnold added. This, he said, is a powerful distinction -- often utility projects are defined by the technology, when they need to be defined in terms of what the specific differences are that we are going to make for our customers.

Another aspect important to customers is 'easy.' "You have to become obsessed with 'easy,'" Arnold said. "When it comes to customer education, 'easy' trumps 'education.'"

Wednesday morning's presentation was a gripping look at the ins and outs of intergenerational marketing. How many of you already knew that the core values of Boomers and Generation Xers are not the same? I didn't. I'll address some of the ah ha! moments of what we learned, and the implications for utilities, in an upcoming column.

Thank you, Texas, for an extra-large helping of your legendary hospitality. I'll be back in a couple of weeks for more. And yes, that's me on the mechanical bull. It just had to be done.

Kate Rowland's picture

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