By Jeff Lipton, WaterSmart
Total Customer Engagement is an amorphous concept that is difficult to define or quantify. Depending on the nature of a given business, engagement may be described using language such as touches, opens, responses, clicks, registrations, reach, shares, influence, views, or other nebulous terms. This language leaves organizations ill-equipped to define and measure the impact and benefits of communicating with customers in a wide range of situations.
For the water industry in particular, a century of silent service has created an aversion to engaging with customers. Complaints from customers on high bills, boil notices, and service outages created the impression that less engagement with customers was preferable. Now that customers are always connected with digital devices and real-time notifications from nearly every common service provider (electric, mobile phone, internet, cable, etc.), the bar for more interactive and flexible tools has risen dramatically. Given the history of the water industry, it isn’t surprising that water utilities are finding it difficult to adapt to this new paradigm of higher customer expectations.
In order to adjust to this evolving environment, it is helpful to establish a clear definition of what is meant by Total Customer Engagement, along with a framework to consistently measure this critical activity. Doing so will have numerous benefits including reducing customer service costs while driving improvements in customer satisfaction to build support for desperately needed infrastructure investments.
The Three T’s
Regardless of how engagement is ultimately defined, there are three important aspects to communicating with customers that combine to form the above-mentioned framework for Total Customer Engagement best practices. Regardless of the method of engagement, all customer communications should be Timely, Targeted, and Topical.
Of course not all communications are the same, and it is important to recognize that providing information out of context, or at the wrong moment, can actually result in frustration or confusion on the part of the end-use customer. For example, if a bill notification is sent to the customer after the payment due-date, the customer is likely to be annoyed at best, and delinquent in paying at worst. Therefore it is critical that information be delivered in a timely fashion so as to provide the most value to the user without being annoying or overly frequent.
In addition to timeliness, communications to customers should be targeted. Not all customers are the same, thus they should not be treated in a homogenous manner. Customers who are delinquent in paying their bills are a good example of the need for segmented targeting. Customers don’t pay for a variety of reasons: They don’t want to pay, they forget to pay, or they can’t afford to pay. Demanding payment from a low income resident is much less effective than offering enrollment in a Customer Assistance Program (CAP), yet this type of offer would be entirely inappropriate for an irate customer refusing to pay because they believe the meter is broken. Therefore the ability to identify customer segments and communicate information appropriate to each group’s circumstances goes a long way toward improving engagement and satisfaction.
Finally, information conveyed to customers should be topical or relevant to that user, and where possible, personalized. By using modern technology to personalize communications using customer specific information (names, address, water use detail, location, etc.), end-users will find increased relevancy in the information, thus improving the chance of effective engagement, reducing support costs, and improving satisfaction.
Channels to Market
Channels represent the different methods of communicating with customers. This can be everything from a customer web portal to a printed bill to an email or text notification. Each stream of information represents a channel and the more channels available to communicate with customers, the more likely an organization is going to be effective at conveying important information, helping educate customers, and building support for critical organizational initiatives.
A best practice engagement strategy will incorporate an ‘all-of-the above’ approach to using every available channel to communicate with customers. Also referred to as ‘Omni-Channel’ communications, the goal of reaching customers across multiple channels is to both unify the total communication experience as well as to meet the customer where they are, based on their individual preferences.
A best in class, Omni-Channel communication platform will combine all of these methods for reaching customers, yet also give the end-user control of delivery channel and frequency so they may choose the method for receiving information that best meets their needs. Print, web, mobile, tablet, text, and voice should all be leveraged to create a seamless, unobtrusive information flow that subtly assists the customer with relevant tasks, and provides timely information when most needed. This is truly the means to achieve Total Customer Engagement.
In addition to the various channels that are used to communicate with customers, a multi-modal engagement strategy should incorporate data access through both push and pull methods. In some cases it is appropriate to expect users to access, or pull, information at their discretion: To check on current bill amounts, evaluate water consumption to date, and consider ways to better manage their utility spend. But in other situations it is critical that information be proactively pushed to users to alert them to potentially high bills, costly household water leaks, pending service outages, boil notices, and other urgent and actionable communications.
By combining the ability for users to selectively access data when they see fit, along with proactive notifications of important or urgent topics, customers are more fully engaged, can respond more appropriately to various types of notifications, and are better positioned to self-serve around common questions and needs. This flexible approach to engagement meets the needs of customers and utilities without requiring an inordinate amount of effort on the part of either party.
Measurement and Meaning
In the end, Total Customer Engagement is a function of a combination of factors including the channels available for communication, the modes within which they access information, the frequency of the those communications, and customer responses to the various information flows. A customer portal that only focuses on data presentment is a necessary, but insufficient mechanism to drive truly effective engagement.
By leveraging an omni-channel, multi-modal Total Customer Engagement platform that provides for push and pull data flows, automated and semi-automated messaging capabilities, and self-service resolution workflows, water utilities will be best situated to take advantage of the many benefits that accrue from higher levels of customer engagement, lower customer service costs, and improved customer satisfaction levels. These low-cost technologies can aid almost any water provider in meeting customer expectations while simultaneously improving operational efficiency and driving cost savings throughout the organization.