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What Utilities Can Learn from Public Health About Customer-Centricity

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Caitlyn  Gibbons's picture
Research Assistant Utility 2030

My name is Caitlyn Gibbons. I am a graduate of Georgia State University hoping to utilize my education in the field of Public Health. I would like to challenge myself to learn and develop new...

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What Utilities Can Learn from Public Health About Customer-Centricity

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Customer-centricity is all about putting the needs of the customer at the forefront of business decisions, communications, and solutions.  And Because advancing customer-centricity goals—at rocket speed—is a relatively new challenge for regulated utilities, there is a lot to be learned from other industries including public health (PH).  First, let me start with the definition of public health.  

Charles-Edward A. Winslow, American bacteriologist and public health expert states, “Public health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.”  

PH might not be the first place utilities looks to learn about customer-centricity, However, according to the Utility 2030 Collaborative’s Leader Development Panel, “Cleaning Up Operational Clutter to Build a Customer-First Company,” it is very clear that the four pillars of leadership that must be advanced to build a customer-centric enterprise are providing direction, creating structure, building trust, and inspiring hope.  And it’s these abilities among leaders in the PH sector that are resulting in success.  The pillars enable public health leaders to respond quickly to health disparities in the way they plan, implement, and evaluate programs and interventions to serve affected populations.  

Surveillance to Address Population Needs  

When the population that you are serving is large, it can be difficult to provide service that is accessible, affordable, and suits the needs of everyone.  

According to CDC’s PH 101 Series, public health surveillance is, “The ongoing, systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of health-related data essential to planning, implementation, and evaluation of public health practice.”   

There is a lot to learn from how building a customer-centric business is comparable to PH surveillance. Similar to receiving feedback from a customer, PH officials are constantly receiving health data from affected populations from which they manage and implement solutions.  It is all about being prepared to understand and respond to the evolving needs of the affected population. 

In comparison to the business model, ongoing collection, analysis, and interpretation of consumer feedback is mandatory for the development of a customer-centered business. Understanding the customer needs and creating a seamless feedback loop are imperative components to creating a successful business.  

Aligning Teams Toward Common Goals 

Customer-centricity is nothing without the alignment of team members.  Alignment can only be achieved through the leadership pillars mentioned above: providing direction, creating structure, building trust, and inspiring hope. Much like planning a PH organization, these abilities advance the planning, implementation, and evaluation of utilities.  

According to panelist Dr. Randy Ross, “Structure flows from values from alignment. We call it value-centricity. When my values align with the values of the organization, then a circuit is created through which energy can flow to light up the world.” 

Today, customers and operations overlap.  Advancing in these areas can help leaders bridge the gap between the two silos since there is always a natural resistance to change. There would be no PH without affected populations.  Thus population-centered (customer-centric) emphasis is an embodiment of PH practice.  

Logic Models to Snuff out Cultural Fires 

When combining operations with the needs of the customers, it is necessary for organizations to align their teams to focus on top priorities and avoid cultural fires.  Leaders must create structure and provide clear direction like we see in PH.  Creating structure considers the timing of events, controlling work environment, and situational leadership.  It is essential to provide a sense of direction to your workforce by identifying the values, and centering priorities around the values of your business.  In doing so, this will create a roadmap that will organize, prioritize, and improve overall efficiency.   

In PH this is addressed through logic models. They are a graphic depiction (roadmap) to present the shared relationships among resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact in PH programs. Creating a roadmap in both fields is an essential element to the development of PH interventions and creating customer-centric businesses. 

The Trinity of a Remarkable Business Culture  

Creating trust is a parallel structure to program implementation, and it is fundamental to establishing the internal, external, construct, and statistical conclusion validity of outcome evaluation. Trust establishes accountability, connection, and compassion (the trinity of remarkable culture).  These are key elements of a passion-driven business, and, in a PH setting, it includes the willingness to advocate, and be subject to intervention.  

Creating trust improves relationships within and beyond the organization and is key to advancing customer-centricity among businesses.  Similar to creating remarkable culture in a business, PH programs must do the same within their organizations. They create trust across their organization to advocate for specific intervention and then extend it to creating trust with the populations affected.  In order to implement an intervention, the community receiving the treatment must trust the PH organization.  This could also apply to a customer-centered business model because there must be a level of trust between business and clients when making a purchase. 

Strategies for Inspiring Hope 

Lastly, inspiring hope is complementary to program evaluation.  Hope is the best strategy of inspiring an entire workforce.  It is comprised of positivity, responsibility, agility, and reality, and is key to driving work ethic, efficiency, and quality.  Moreover, it is essential to inspire hope among clients and employees, because they will believe in the goods or services provided or received.  Believing in the product is a crucial component of passion-driven business.  

To determine if businesses are inspiring hope, a simple survey can be administered—like what is being done in PH.  Feedback is an influential component to customer-centricity or PH intervention.  In doing so, it benefits the business or PH program by emphasizing the strengths and weaknesses of an intervention, goods, or services. This data collected will help make determinations on what areas need to be developed further or left alone.   

“Hope is the basis of leadership. It’s about working under assumption that people come in happy and leave happier,” said panelist Frankie McDermott, Chief Energy Delivery Officer, SMUD. 

A Step by Step Review  

Let us review.   

  1. Surveillance and targeting the specific needs of a population or clients; 
  1. Planning the intervention, analogous to forming values and priorities in an organization, is an essential roadmap to leading the way; 
  1. Implementation and trust building –to implement a business ideal or intervention there must be seamless and open channels of communication; 
  1. Take care of employees and customers by inspiring hope by way of feedback loop. 

For utility leaders on the journey to building more customer-centric organizations—and most are—PH is one of the industries we can all learn from along with the on-demand panel referenced early in the article,  “Cleaning Up Operational Clutter to Build a Customer-First Company.”  Public Health holds the key to understanding customer-centricity due to its population-based approach. It seeks to understand the needs of the individuals, create a specific intervention based on those needs, empower people within and outside of the organization to support or adhere to the intervention, and evaluate the intervention through feedback. These elements can be learned by businesses to support a customer-centric organization.  

Utility 2030 Collaborative
We are a community of business professionals building a blueprint for the digital customer-centric utility of the future by defining and creating content, frameworks, standards, and the people who will lead us forward.
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 2, 2021

Such a rich topic since the utility industry counterintuitively never really looked at being this type of customer-centricity. It was always a one way street-- send out power, bring in the bill payment. Would be fascinating to see how the grid might have been built from the ground up if the customer at the center of it all was foreseen back in the day, but modeling after other industries that did build that way is a great way to try to learn lessons, prevent reinventing the wheel, etc. 

Caitlyn  Gibbons's picture
Caitlyn Gibbons on Apr 14, 2021

Thank you! I think that there is a lot to learn from industries that have had customers at their forefront from the beginning. I'm thinking the utility industry could perfect some best practices using other methodologies from industries like public health. 

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