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Open Questions Regarding New Municipal Utility VoC Program

Posted to Utility 2030 Collaborative in the Customer Care Group
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Vanessa Edmonds's picture
Executive Director & Advisor Utility 2030 Collaborative & Appos Advisors

Founder & President, Appos Advisors Co-founder & Executive Director, Utility 2030 Collaborative.   Vanessa Edmonds is a utility industry strategist, marketer, and writer who brings...

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  • Jun 1, 2022
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A large municipal utility company in Florida, a member of the Utility 2030 Collaborative, recently partnered with a technology solution provider to improve their VoC program with the following goals:

  • Significantly increase the number of customer feedback surveys

  • Switch from a deploying single, annual survey to gathering survey each month

They have already increased surveys from 200 annually to 11.740 annually!

They aren’t yet sharing results with utility customers because they are looking for answers to the following questions:

  • What survey information should be shared with customers and why?

  • What is the best way to share survey results with customers?

  • Should we incentive customers for participating in our surveys and, if yes, what are other utilities doing?

Do you have any advice for this utility? We'll credit you when we share your comments with them.

Building a VoC Program is the focus of one of our workgroups. Learn more about us by visiting www.utility2030.org and email me at vedmonds@utility2030.org if you're interested in getting involved in this workgroup or others.

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Mark Wilkinson's picture
Mark Wilkinson on Jun 6, 2022

Always happy to dig into the best practices for Utility Voice of the Customer programs.  It’s a great topic worthy of a book or two, certainly, but our Utility 2030 Collaborative member likely wants more direct insights.

We heartily approve of the program goals to increase responsiveness to surveys and to add more data collection than just an annual survey.  Worthy goals that can find support from a number of industries that operate in similar conditions to utilities and have very strong sensitivity to JD Power and NPS metrics.

Customers’ responsiveness to feedback surveys varies across a LOT of variables and inputs, but the mingling of the goals that this member targets suggests a virtuous cycle.  Customer feedback to surveys generally responds in proportion and very positively to the immediacy of the invitation.  In other words, sending more surveys more closely timed to the interaction with the customer on the topic of the survey has the best chance for a high response rate.  And, it helps to be a bit personalized in the invitation.  So, to get better survey response volume it helps to send more surveys more closely timed to a customer event and personalized for their attention.

Tactically, a few best practices apply.  Response rates generally work best for surveys invited via SMS or text message.  Customers are overwhelmingly responding to these surveys on their smartphone, so a text message that includes a secure link to a utility survey likely achieves the quickest path to a high response rate.  Email survey invitations still work, but require a customer to be logged into email and notice the invite in their inbox.  Text messages can be much more immediate and require fewer steps or clicks to capture responses.

And, don’t forget to remind customers to complete their surveys.  Our own experience shows that up to 2 reminders really increases customer survey completion rate.  But, personalization matters.  It’s common practice to remind customers to start their survey, but we see a great completion rate when we send a note to customers who started but didn’t yet finish their survey.  It’s a more timely and informative note to tell customers “it won’t take more than 2 minutes to finish your survey, but your feedback helps us meet your goals all year.”

Some utilities worry that survey reminders may damage opt-in permission and result in the customers unsubscribing from future communication.  Most research indicates that more than 3 survey reminders yield very little positive benefit in response rate.  And, a simple survey reminder to tell customers that we value their feedback should not produce a high volume of unsubscribe activity.  Customers more often opt-out from future emails when they get a lot of email that lacks relevance and timeliness and doesn’t demonstrate personal awareness, not because they receive survey reminders from a brand they trust.

In addition to an NPS style annual survey to assess core CSAT, we are big fans of creating surveys at key milestones along the customer journey.  For example, adding a survey following the first bill, an outage, a call to customer service, or a visit to the website or marketplace gives utilities a chance to collect information specific to a key customer experience.  Collecting and analyzing that milestone feedback provides immediate and meaningful data about how to optimize those experiences and what’s most important to the utility’s customers.

Regarding the question “what survey information should be shared with customers and why,” and the best way to share that data, I think it’s useful to consider why customers complete surveys.  Customers generally have an expectation when they complete a survey that someone is listening.  To that end, we always recommend sharing survey feedback in the aggregate tied to outcomes resulting from action on those customer insights.  For example, survey feedback may indicate that customers appreciate proactive outage notification but don’t like having to open an app to get the alert.  A utility could share that feedback in the context of the completion of an improvement program to deliver multi-channel alerts and a “one-click” outage summary.  That type of communication shows customers that the utility listened to their feedback and took action to improve the program with great results.

Similarly, surveys may provide overwhelming feedback that customers appreciate the clarity and ease of using a online bill portal that shows in simple to understand terms how they pay for and use the commodity.  Utilities could highlight that survey data in a campaign to help new customers adopt the portal and increase overall use among customers because the survey data offers an unbiased and non-commercial endorsement from other customers.

In both cases, utilities best share survey data from customers to demonstrate after the fact that they have considered customer feedback and incorporated it into ongoing operations to make the utility more responsive to customers.  Customers complete surveys with the hope that the brand they trust enough to share their insights with actually listens and does something with the data.  Sharing survey data to demonstrate that action adds value, and likely will help utilities achieve their goal of increasing customer response rates to surveys, too. It’s a virtuous cycle.

The question of incentives for survey completion opens a big can of worms and triggers much academic debate.  I like to think in more practical terms.  I’m not opposed to incentives, but I’m also certain that they don’t make much difference.  Consider your last experience at a fast food restaurant.  There’s a good chance that your receipt included a link to a survey and promised a free entree for completing it.  But, most people don’t even look at the receipt unless they had a bad experience, and if they complete the survey, it’s more likely to vent their frustration than to get a free breakfast sandwich.  (Am I being too transparent?)  In most cases, those customers never actually use the survey reward anyway.  In this example, and in the research, incentives that reward customers tangibly for survey completion tend to skew the results and introduce bias.

As a former retention officer with responsibility for the corporate VoC program, I prefer to think of incentives differently.  I don’t want to reward customers with a tangible incentive to complete a survey because it likely restricts the type of genuine feedback that I need in order to make meaningful changes to our customer experience.  I prefer to send a personalized reminder to a customer shortly after sending the survey that we value their feedback and will use it to improve their experiences in the future and make decisions for the benefit of all customers of the business.  That type of outreach offers customers incentives to provide their feedback as part of that mission and to get more value from the brand or business they trust and spend money with.  It’s just a different form of incentive and won’t create bias in the process.

We certainly hope that our Utility 2030 member has success with their VoC expansion.  Sounds like they have really developed a thriving program. 

 

Michael Smith's picture
Michael Smith on Jun 11, 2022

These are great questions to be asking! One thought that occurs to me when I read through the questions is "how do these align with the key strategic initiatives of the utility?" That might be a cop out, but for an organization's mission to be realized in a very tangible way, the organization's leadership needs to live and breathe those key strategic initiatives in a very tangible way. A few of examples might be: 1.) if transparency is a goal (perhaps given some past issues/challenges with sharing info with the public/customers), than sharing the results will address those concerns if properly framed; 2. assessing progress of an initiative - like if there is a large public works program, survey results can be part of a 'progress report' to the customers/community, but this will need to be tied to action items that are aligned with the survey results (like, if the survey results are confirming the direction of the program, trumpet that result ("we are working with our community to improve XYZ!"), whereas if the survey results show that the customers are not aligned with what is happening with the project the message for action should reflect this ("we hear you and here is what we are doing!).

For a large-scale community survey like this, I don't think that an incentive is necessary, but the survey should be tied to the bigger picture and ideally will be part of explicit actions as a result of their participation, like maybe a community workshop to share survey results and next steps, etc.

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