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Social media use and storm response: Is there value?

John Hall 

Intelligent Utility

5 December 2014

Over the last several years, many utilities have been moving towards utilising newer communications channels, such as social media, to deliver enhanced customer service and improve their customer relationships. However, there is still considerable opportunity to engage the full functionality and potential of these new channels, social media in particular. In that light, a call center must be viewed as but one pillar of a multi-channel customer relationship.  For utilities to really excel, the customer service (including the call center) division’s fundamental role—and the way it is managed—must change.

Social media is going mainstream

Traditionally, the use of social media has been to issue outbound communications or to track utility focused inbound complaints or queries. But these new channels no longer represent just “an efficient way” to provide information to customers; they are critical for establishing bilateral communication, executing promotions, stimulating sales, and influencing consumer behavior. Responsive customer experiences forge positive customer relationships, particularly during stressful power outages or storm recovery efforts.

Even as more utilities are leveraging newer digital channels to enhance their customer services and communications, reports show that 48 percent of U.S. consumers believe companies need to do a better job of integrating their online and offline experiences, and over 50 percent of people surveyed in 2014 believed that local utilities should harness the real-time communications of various social media channels to share information on major events, including storms, and the status of power restoration activities. As of now, however, less than one percent of customers currently follow their local utilities on Twitter, indicating that customers do not currently perceive a value from interacting with their utility this way.

This presents a gap between current and potential capability that may be filled by improved social media practices and represents a considerable opportunity for utilities to harness information from the customer to provide exceptional service and improve response to major events. 

Form partnerships with your customers

One such information source is the utility outage management systems, which provide a wealth of detail about outages experienced across the system; however, one area many utilities still struggle with is their ability to perform quicker and more effective damage assessment and obtain real-time, local information about hazards such as road blockages, lightning strikes, and downed wires as well as damage to their own equipment.  Information from social media sources particularly when “crowd-sourced” across the various channels and associated with geo-tagged data from customers’ smart phones/social media posts, may provide a wealth of additional information to help identify hazards and prioritise activities that may ultimately help improve the overall restoration and the damage assessment process.

To work successfully with customers or social media, utilities must also develop a formal “template” by which this new data/information should be sent, set expectations amongst customers regarding how the utility will leverage the incoming information, and stress the importance of customer safety at all times (i.e. the customer should not put themselves in harm’s way to send a picture to the utility). In addition, customers must perceive value from the interaction with their utility and utilities must create a partnership with their customers, to gather all available information during a major event. 

You get what you measure

While making efforts to adopt new technologies, utilities should also revisit their approach to full service contact centers. Previous practices such as 24/7 operations, focus on metrics, such as first-call resolution and others, may raise operating costs, exhaust service representatives, and ultimately provide minimal value-add to customers. Two-thirds of the decisions customers make are informed by the quality of their experience—no matter what channel is used. According to Forrester,”72 percent of customers prefer self-service to resolve their support issues over picking up the phone or sending an email.”  Rather than facing increased hold times, especially during major events when call volume increases, most would prefer to utilise self-service or more “immediate” alternatives such as a well-designed IVR, social media, web chat or other channels.

Self-service will help shift you to be world class

Utilities can become world class and vastly improve their customers’ experience by unwaveringly focusing on self-service options and re-examining the fundamental role and performance measures of their contact centers within the digital world. By doing so, utilities may reap the full service and cost benefits of new customer communication channels and technologies. Strengthening real-time, interactive communication during storms puts customers in a partnership role with the utility and helps minimise negative perception, as well as opening the door for introducing other utility programs. 

When technically integrated into restoration operations and processes, information gathered from social media has the potential to identify hazards quickly, improve response times, open a convenient two-way dialogue with customers and optimise all external stakeholders, including customers, the media, and the regulators while improving the perception of the utility response efforts.  Proactive tracking of customer response performance with a few key metrics aligned to this new role enables agile and responsive service at reduced cost.

Social media and self-service has significant value in utility customer service but being successful requires a change in focus and a challenge to the traditional approach to achieve these benefits. It is worth making these changes; are you prepared?


John Hall is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting Group.


For more information on PA's energy expertise, click here or contact us now.

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