How a weather event can help utilities win at customer satisfaction

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Most consumers don’t think about utilities much until one of two things happens: the bill comes in, or the power goes out. The monthly bill briefly reminds people of a service that delivers a mostly intangible product. But what about when a weather event or other crisis cuts off their utilities unexpectedly?

People truly become aware of their utilities is when the service stops, usually due to weather or other natural events. Only then do they become painfully aware of all the things the utility industry brings to our lives: light, power, water, warmth, safety, communication. 

Most utility companies have become quite good at ramping up their customer service to ensure their messages about outages and expected repairs get out to the population. They have embraced social media, particularly Twitter, to expand their communications well beyond their own websites and call centers in times of crisis.

What they continue to lack, however – and what they all must embrace is a greater focus on getting ahead of the crisis. In other words, they need to get the word out in advance of an event. The reason is simple—studies show customers have greater overall satisfaction with the utility companies that take a forward-thinking approach to customer relations.

In the case of an emergency such as a windstorm, it could be argued that no one can accurately predict an outage. But, that does not preclude a utility’s ability to capitalize on social media to send out warnings to customers’ phones and email inboxes, and to web pages like local news stations, weather stations, or even FaceBook. The usage data is out there. It is easy to find out what channels their customers use, and get on them.

A recent report by J.D. Power confirms the importance of proactive communication as a marketing and customer-service tool. In its summary of results released in July 2015, ongoing communication efforts and price were the two key drivers of customer satisfaction. The study pointed out that utility companies were “providing critical information during a power outage, such as the cause of the outage, the number of customers impacted and more accurate estimates on when power will be restored.” However, the report continued, proactive communications are only reaching 7.3 percent of customers, a slight increase from 5.6 percent in 2014.

What types of proactive messages could they send? Personalized suggestions on efficient appliance use based on individual customer data, weather and storm preparation updates, notifications about new technologies such as Internet of Things-enabled smart devices, even traffic reports that help cut fuel costs. These are examples of practical, proactive information that tie consumers more closely to the brand.

There is also a second layer to consider. A proactive communication strategy helps companies keep pace in a busy and social marketplace. Customers are always comparing their experiences with vendors of all types. When their bank, airline, or favorite retailer delivers a highly tailored and comfortable experience, utilities must respond in kind.

Even when you are the only utility in town, there are significant economic benefits to offering ease of use, convenience, and pleasure in the relationship, for this is the common language of all B2B and B2C experiences. Those efforts will be returned many times over, with prompt payments, reduced help-desk demands, and a community contribution to maintaining a healthy and mutually beneficial grid. Also, there is increasing competition from other non-traditional alternative energy suppliers, which leads to an even greater urgency to generate and retain loyalty with the customer base.

The gap between proactive and reactive communications is symbolic of the challenge that utilities encounter when turning their management philosophies around to face the customer in real time. After having enjoyed many decades as a head-end delivery system, responsible for pumping energy out to its customers’ homes and businesses, they must now face a turbulent and substantially changed economy in which interaction on a day by day basis, and the development of messaging prior to a significant problem is the new normal. It may be new and somewhat strange to them.

But, this is a new age. It is a time in which individual homeowners are physically able to place solar panels on their roofs and sell their surplus back to the grid – essentially reversing the vendor/buyer dynamic. A very different place, indeed.

Dean Afzal
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March 31, 2016
Dean Afzal

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