By Andrew Jornod
Times, technology, and expectations have changed, creating an atmosphere where utilities must update customer engagement strategies to ensure satisfactory service.
There’s no question today’s utilities are facing numerous challenges, from an economic downturn to long overdue infrastructure investments. On top of it all is the challenge of keeping up with the rapid rise in customer expectations for utility providers. Building a strong customer engagement program is one way to alleviate some burden on utility staff and, most importantly, provide quick and efficient customer service to the end user.
For maximum success, utilities should ensure their customer engagement programs embody the following seven critical characteristics.
1. Make Everything Targeted
Utilities must be able to quickly segment and connect with specific customers in times of crisis or other unplanned events. To do this, utilities must prioritize communication engines with GIS capabilities to identify and target affected customers with ease. The last thing any utility wants to deal with is an unplanned service interruption and the ensuing customer calls and frustration. Instead, if an outage occurs, staff should be able to quickly segment the customers in the area and send out a series of automated voice calls to update customers on the situation.
Geography isn’t the only targeting necessary. Utilities will experience greater program participation when directing promotions to lists of customers based on identifying factors and property information. Not only will such targeting save significant time, but it allows staff to focus on other high-priority tasks rather than manage an influx of customer inquiries from an unintended audience.
2. Drive With Data
Gathering data at the individual customer level and then using that data to inform communication are crucial in today’s modern utility environment. No matter the granularity of data, providing customers transparency into their own usage helps to avoid the common customer reaction of, “There’s no possible way my bill is accurate.”
Customers calling to occasionally question their bill may be inevitable; however, utilities will benefit from improved quality of calls when conversations are grounded in data. When these calls occur, utilities should be able to direct customers to a portal to view their usage and then lead them through a series of questions about actions taken in their home. By matching behaviors with usage charts, customers feel a greater sense of comfort and acceptance. Not only is everyone happier, but this strategy has been proven to cut customer call times in half.
3. Embrace A Proactive Approach
Waiting for a problem to arise with a customer is inefficient and costly. Successful utilities take a proactive approach to customer communications. Automated notifications and alerts provide timely and important information around the most common customer concerns. Ideally, these alerts will reach customers prior to them realizing there’s an issue. Not only does this revolutionize the typical customer experience, but it builds credibility for the utility.
When a utility uses proactive notifications to alert customers about a possible leak, they can help customers avoid terrible consequences for their property and their wallet. Such notifications might be triggered when customers have reached a self-selected consumption threshold, when consumption suggests a potential high-volume or continuous leak, or simply when they’ll have a higher-than-normal bill. And while it may be obvious, proactive communication improves overall customer satisfaction. Five utilities’ customers were surveyed about their reaction to receiving alerts, and 95 percent reported overwhelming appreciation for the service.
4. Leverage Multiple Channels
There are endless channels for communication, and each channel allows for a unique way for utilities to reach their customers. These methods range from web chats, emails, printed bills, automated calling, and even tweets. The more channels available to customers, the more effective a utility will be with actually connecting with them. A best practices strategy for utilities is an “all of the above” approach, meaning the use of any and all available channels to communicate with customers. More importantly, however, customers should have the control to select their preferred channels for the utility to reach them.
A multifaceted approach creates a seamless, uninterrupted flow of communication that ensures customers receive timely, relevant information through the channel(s) they most prefer. Though a utility should make all channels available to its customers — including traditional mail and phone support — its goal should be to convert customers to digital channels to reduce the cost of print, mail, and excess in-person communications. It isn’t that lofty a goal, either. We’ve seen utilities convert more than 20 percent of customers to digital channels simply by sending print letters that point customers to those new channels.
5. Make It Actionable
As welcome and helpful as proactive customer communications are, service doesn’t stop there. It is crucial to close the loop by providing customers with self-service actions. Customers have come to expect service 24/7 with the rise of web chats and social media. However, providing live or in-person service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for all possible situations isn’t practical or economically feasible. That’s why utilities must offer their customers digital self-service options whenever possible.
The expectation of “anytime” customer service doesn’t necessarily mean a customer expects to reach a live representative. Rather, it means customers expect access to solutions. Digital applications and online portals must help customers identify and resolve issues on their own, without ever requiring them to pick up their phone. This not only reduces staff burden, but also alleviates stress and frustration for a customer.
6. Automate When Possible
Utilities should allow their systems to do the work for them whenever possible. Reimagining processes and implementing solutions that automatically detect and solve issues can save time, reduce costs, and utilize staff more efficiently.
It is projected that 37 percent of the water utility workforce alone will retire in the next 10 years, meaning a large portion of the workforce will have to be replenished. In light of this “silver tsunami” approaching the utility industry, using staff time more efficiently is critical for utilities. However, concerns over a staffing shortage can be avoided by automating some previously manual and error-prone tasks. Automating data analytics is just one way to avoid spending precious staff time going through lists of meters and consumption data to identify and act upon trends.
7. Build Trust
Lastly, a customer engagement program has the potential to turn customers into partners in the community. By effectively communicating with customers and fostering a genuine connection, utilities and individuals can build a mutually beneficial relationship. In the unavoidable event a utility must execute a rate increase to help fund critical infrastructure investments, having a trusting relationship with customers can help to neutralize any complaints that may arise and instead garner understanding from the community.
When developing a customer engagement program, these seven keys provide a powerful framework for success. Ensuring your utility’s program meets them all needn’t be overwhelmingly daunting. It really is a matter of selecting the most innovative solutions that can support such an engagement program. By leveraging the right systems, leading utilities will achieve their goals, lessen the burden of creating and managing an effective customer engagement program, and, instead, focus on what’s most important: maintaining excellent service.
About The Author
Andrew Jornod is CEO and president of VertexOne (www.vertexone.net), a recognized leader in SaaS platforms for the critical business processes of utilities across North America, including the VertexOne™ cloud portfolio comprising CIS, MWM, MDM, and Customer Self Service, and now WaterSmart solutions and services. Andrew has almost 25 years of experience in the energy and utilities industry and is responsible for leading the organization to transformational growth through organic growth and strategic acquisitions.