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Close at Heart

ANDY MCKENNA and JOHN ZAGANCZYK | POWERGRID International | 1 june 2017

This article first appeared in POWERGRID International.

Regulated utilities with a fixed user base sometimes are viewed as putting customer experience second to major operational imperatives, such as infrastructure improvements or cyber-security safeguard implementation. Most do, however, consider customer service an important responsibility. 

We Energies, which serves customers in portions of Wisconsin, is well respected when it comes to customer service. The utility is a six-time winner of PA Consulting Group’s ReliabilityOne Award as the most reliable utility in the Midwest. Improving the overall customer experience (with better reliability being one lever) is critical to building customer advocacy and supporting We Energies’ strategic objectives and position with regulators. 

Over the past several years, We Energies has built strong relationships with customers, establishing effective lines of two-way communications that have helped improve process and generate significant goodwill. This aids customer and company alike, not only at times of crisis, such as during power outages, but also when looking to introduce new programs and services and foster support for future growth plans. 

As We Energies and PA Consulting can attest, however, building an effective customer experience can’t be achieved as just a “departmental” initiative. The effort to embrace a customer-centric culture must start at the top, particularly in this new energy economy. Not only is engagement at this top level central to driving satisfaction and customer advocacy, it is also critical to a company’s future growth and profitability. 

As companies look to develop and implement an effective customer service strategy they should consider these key best practices: 

  • Make it a company-wide responsibility A commitment to customer service will work only if the effort takes place across all departmental lines. A good customer experience is not the responsibility of just customer service or those in the field, but also corporate communications, local affairs, account management, finance, etc. All groups must come together with a focus on advancing customer satisfaction. During a storm, for example, We Energies will initiate proactive and ongoing outreach to customers. All departments will gather to analyze the situation and identify customer needs. Utility employees will collectively convene to determine message content, develop an outreach plan and identify any other actions it should take to support the community. Today many people across We Energies— not just customer service—talk to customers. Even those in the field will knock on doors to get feedback. These actions have become part of the company’s culture, which even extends to new hires. All applicants must take a customer service aptitude test—even if he or she is applying to work in the power plant or finance. 

  • Use a personal touch - We Energies is rated by J.D. Power as one of the utilities that each year has consistently high customer satisfaction scores. The company initiated the “We Care” program wherein We Energies will call customers who experience a service interruption after the outage is resolved. The company also calls customers during outages to provide updates and information on service restoration. This level of personal interaction has helped to not only elevate satisfaction, but also enable We Energies to uncover insight into some underlying service and process issues. In addition, “We Care” has been instrumental in identifying the “early difference makers” in given situations in terms of what the company’s customers expect. 

  • Invest in the customer The rate of change in technology presents real challenges for utilities. It requires them to invest in customers with the same commitment they exhibit when investing in generation, transmission and distribution. Without this investment, a utility will fall short during an outage, which is really a moment of truth for customers. During an outage, customers want to be able to report that outage to their utility via a channel convenient to them, whether that be phone, online, text message, mobile app, social media or whatever technology may emerge next. They want information about that outage and they want rapid resolution. A utility can be efficient in restoring power to customers, but for customers who are kept “in the dark” (literally and with respect to communications), five minutes can seem like 50. The investment in customer experience technologies allows customer service to go hand in hand with world class reliability, as well as provide greater functionality, such as enabling customers to report outages quickly so utilities can rapidly identify problems as they emerge. 

  • Emphasize access – Utility personnel must place themselves in their customers’ mindset when a crisis occurs. Those customers want access to their electricity provider right away. It is critical, therefore, for the utility to provide all communication avenues their customers will expect. For example, We Energies knows that when an outage hits, its customers will try to connect through an online or mobile search. We Energies has worked hard over the past several years to ensure search routines are optimized so that customers can find what they are looking for. In outages, We Energies pays for information to be delivered ahead of others. This makes it easier for customers to find the utility, and it means a call to We Energies is only a click away. 

Although more people are moving to mobile and digital communication channels, customers still use the phone. We Energies’ goal is for no customer to get a busy signal when he or she calls, even during outages. The utility has 40,000-50,000 phone lines available to its customer base through a third party. 

In short, an effective customer experience effort can’t happen as a program of the month or even of the year. It must become part of the company culture, which is why it must start at the top. Delivering a positive customer experience must be a common goal and part of the fabric of operations, day in and day out. In addition, the utility must stay with it. No company can implement such a program and not evolve it. The program should change as customers’ needs change. 

Dynamic change is underway and customers, especially institutional and industrial, increasingly have choices and options. Putting a comprehensive customer experience program in place now will help transform a utilities’ customer base into its advocates, especially when it comes to winning those customers’ support for major projects. Customercentricity will allow a utility to create and retain happy and loyal customer advocates for years to come.

Andy McKenna is an energy & utilities expert at PA Consulting Group, and John Zaganczyk is a vice president of customer service for WEC Energy Group

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