From The Editor | March 7, 2014

The Book On Consumer Outreach For Utilities


By Kevin Westerling

Many utilities have either waded or jumped headlong into customer communications and social media. But is any of it useful?

Read any good books lately? I recently discovered (and bought into) the philosophy espoused in Jay Baer’s Youtility — a treatise on “usefulness” — and found it to be … well, useful, and thus worthy of sharing.

Although the title seems targeted to public utilities, Youtility is actually a marketing book, but more public relations than marketing. While the goal of marketing is selling, the goal of “Youtility” (as a concept) is helping.

This distinction is precisely why it applies to water and wastewater utilities, and also engineers. Utilities not only want to help their customers, they also want to cultivate confidence in their product (i.e., water) and appreciation for their services. Engineering firms, meanwhile, are competing against one another commercially. The lesson of Youtility is that truly useful content creation — even when no immediate payback is promised — is the key to winning consumer trust and loyalty. Ultimately, the argument goes, companies will reap business rewards by building up goodwill. Baer calls it “friend-of-mine awareness.”

Youtility For Utilities

Although utilities aren’t interested in profit (and they already have your business), they are interested in minimizing costs. Furthermore, utilities’ consumer-outreach programs have been striving for some time to improve public perception, support, and participation, which can directly affect the success of varied initiatives. Finally, utilities simply take pride in being good public servants and stewards of the environment. The lessons learned from Youtility can help achieve all these objectives.

Listed below are the three facets of Youtility, provided with descriptive quotes from the book, as well as examples of how they might work within a utility’s consumer-outreach campaign.

Self-Serve Information

“We’ve always tried to build loyalty with people, and now we must build loyalty with information.”

With the proliferation of smartphones, the world was placed in the palm of our hands. Before that, we had the world on our desktops. Ultimate access to information has become normal and expected, so why not provide what your customers seek? This can be as simple as posting a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs), which also has the side benefit of saving time for the utility in the long run.

While certain questions are nearly universal (e.g., How do I pay my bill?), others may be very specific to the municipality, including inquiries on rates, water quality, and infrastructure projects. Provide this information and more — details on treatment methods, source water, discharge points, and (perhaps) even performance data.

If the utility is proud of its efforts, there should be nothing to hide. That leads us to Youtility facet number two…

Radical Transparency

“Answering customers’ questions carries remarkable, persuasive power.”

Beyond self-service information, the utility should be willing and available to answer any question a customer might ask. They should also mine for questions by surveying customers about their wants and needs. This activity, however it is carried out, embodies helpfulness (a close cousin of usefulness) and conveys genuine concern.  

The public’s current lack of understanding about the water/wastewater industry has led them to undervalue the services provided. Because utilities have the public’s best interest at heart, the converse should also apply: greater understanding should elicit greater appreciation and support.

Therefore, fill in the knowledge gaps through any means possible — FAQs, blog entries, moderated user forums, video demonstrations — and don’t spare the details. Trust is a two-way street, and the payoff is friend-of-mine awareness.

Real-Time Relevancy

“You’re either sufficiently useful at any given moment, or you’re not.”

Mobile Internet users are expected to surpass desktop Internet users this year, according to Morgan Stanley research projections cited in Youtility. This milestone is referred to as the “app-ification” of our culture, and it raises the bar for usefulness.

Through smartphone applications, customers can access personalized account information and pay their bill from anywhere, at any time. But that merely scratches the surface. An app can be devised for almost any need, and understanding and delivering on those needs is the cornerstone of Youtility.

Social media outlets are also excellent conduits for real-time relevancy. When immediate answers are sought, the trend now is to turn to Facebook and Twitter. These channels are especially useful in emergency situations. A recent case study from Avon Lake Regional Water epitomizes real-time relevancy — and Youtility — in action.

An Honest Review

I’m obviously a fan of Youtility, but I have no affiliation with the author or publisher (though I think Jay Baer now owes me). The spirit of the text, to be as helpful and useful as possible, is exactly in line with utilities (and my aim as well). While the tactics may not be wholly compatible with utility operations, the fundamental principles resonate.