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San Diego engages customers with new technologies

Intelligent Utility 

17 February 2015


Over the last few years, digital leaders such as Amazon, eBay and Google have been resetting customers’ expectations for cross-channel convenience. Customers have become acclimated to a continual stream of new and better channels with increasing convenience, accessibility, accuracy, and immediacy—all of which are available on any device, anywhere, anytime. But in this fast-paced technological world, many conservative, regulated utilities are not always well prepared to enter the digital stage.

Digital channels no longer just represent the least-cost method to interact with customers; they are critical for issuing vital information regarding outages and dangerous conditions related to major storms; promoting programs that assist customers with bill pay; developing emergency plans; providing helpful safety tips; issuing offers for smart thermostats, LEDs, etc.; as well as helping to manage consumer behavior.

Leading electric utilities, such as San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), are embracing various digital platforms such as desktop and mobile websites, mobile applications, and social media—proving that it is possible for electric utilities to step into the fast lane and successfully adopt digital customer service strategies along with traditional customer call centers.

SDG&E was one of the country’s first utilities to deploy a responsive design mobile application for their customers. They have since completely embraced social media and live web-chat services, through which they provide service at the same level as their call center. Some of SDG&E’s other digital accomplishments include redesigning their website to improve the customer experience, including enabling service in multiple languages and improving the ability for customers to find their interest areas through a convenient web “storefront.” They have also streamlined the process of updating their outage maps to provide their customers easy access and up-to-date information on restoration times and activities. In addition, they have established a points program where customers earn rewards for participating in programs such as paperless billing or My Account and qualify for reduced bills if they use a smart thermostat that allows SDG&E to adjust the temperature of their air conditioning to help manage load during peak time periods.

SDG&E defines it success by its increased ability to understand customer preferences and to keep them interested in all its services. “We are seeing our customers becoming more engaged in the business of energy,” said Caroline Winn, SDG&E vice president of customer services and chief customer privacy officer. “Customers are getting added value for what they pay every month and are participating in more of our programs and services.”

Keys to success #1: Know and leverage your customers’ interests

SDG&E customer service staff admits that the key to the success of their digital customer service strategy is more than high tech. At its core, its digital strategies rely upon understanding customer drivers and using that knowledge to provide the type of information customers want in the manner they want to receive it.

For instance, SDG&E knows that estimated restoration time is what customers want to know when there is an outage—proven by the fact that outage questions now comprise approximately 50 percent of all tweets received by the utility. The utility was among the first of its kind to direct any type of inquiry—text, tweet, web, or phone—to a live online outage map, ensuring customers receive a consistent and accurate experience, no matter the channel used. SDG&E was also the first to offer a mobile application and live web-chat services. Providing a venue to accurate, immediate, and valuable information gains customer confidence and interest, and provides SDG&E customer service staff with the information needed to provide future offers, services, and information through customer preferred channels.

Further, the utility has developed one of the industry’s strongest partner networks, coordinating with more than 250 community based organisations to connect customers to available assistance, such as bill pay, incentives, and energy efficiency. The utility begins by bringing organised groups in for events, and then assists the groups in setting up their own electronic networks or social media programs. The network is then set up and ready to channel utility outreach programs using information in the group’s language and tailored to its area of interest.

SDG&E has also been effective in identifying and coordinating with existing networks of blogger-groups. The utility, for instance, is working with a network of mommy bloggers who are interested in energy savings and home safety. The utility provides the group with energy ideas, notifies them of rate changes, and helps them develop and share their stories about their own conservation results. In effect, the utility penetrates natural networks and leverages them to share information of mutual interest through their channels.

“In general, a pillar of our success in digital communications lies in honoring the human touch,” said Winn. “We strive to develop personal relationships and then translate those relationships to the social media world—we remember that there’s a human being behind every 140 character tweet.” Customers are often very surprised when SDG&E immediately responds to their tweets. In fact, 85 percent of tweets are responded to within one hour of receipt.

Keys to success #2: Use analytics to continually improve

When first planning its foray into the digital world, SDG&E investigated and modeled its strategy based on what was happening within the retail space—the industry that is largely shaping customer expectations within new technology rather than simply looking at what their peers were doing. Recognising that the digital world is fast-paced and constantly changing, SDG&E knew that it couldn’t delay deployment in constant pursuit of perfection. The utility has chosen instead to release new channels expediently—sometimes before all the t’s are crossed—then focus on an analysis of user statistics to fix them, enhance them, and continually ensure that its digital channels remain fresh and useful.

“We never just put something out there, sit back, and think our job is done,” Winn said. “We use multiple data analytics to figure out what is most popular and the links that customers are accessing. We are continually updating our digital channels and how we use them.”

In the past year, SDG&E put a premium on collecting, analysing and interpreting their data analysis. The utility created a dashboard that integrates user statistics from the web page, social media, email, electronic ads, and more. The dashboard accurately demonstrates the successful and less successful aspects of the utility’s digital campaign, as well as how its programs are engaging customers. In addition to the digital dashboard, SDG&E also uses tools to specifically analyse online conversations to determine what customers are talking about, what they are interested in, and how they can be better served.

Most recently, SDG&E has begun riding the image-centric trend as seen over channels such as SnapChat, Pinterest and Instagram. Although having been on this type of social channel for a couple of years, SDG&E is seeing a more recent jump in engagement on those channels and will therefore continue to invest more resources into these image-centric media. Its customer services will optimise the trend by employing more images and infographics into its postings, and creating more of its popular “micro-videos” to convey important customer information.

Everything SDG&E releases within its digital sphere has a measurement strategy incorporated. “Flexibility is a great advantage of digital communications,” said Winn. “If something isn’t working, we tweak it or try something completely new. We are in a constant state of re-invention.”

Keys to success #3: Integrate digital channels with operations

As much attention as SDG&E dedicates to its digital strategy, its use of new technology is never considered in isolation from its more traditional operations. This is most clearly demonstrated with its emergency communications, where social media can add rich, real-time data to the utilities’ other information sources while strengthening its customer relationship. Tweets are monitored 24/7 and useful field information is fed immediately to operations. Having access to customer-shared photos and information allows the SDG&E crews to assess situations before they arrive and make customers a part of the solution.

“Mobile technologies are dominating the way we think about communicating to our customers on an every-day basis, but during an emergency we have the ability to learn so much more when we take advantage of the two-way aspect of social media,” said Winn. “If necessary, we can invite our customers to share pictures and information to help us restore power better, safer and more efficiently.”

SDG&E has ensured that information from its social media channels are integrated with other operations so that all data and customer experience is consistent, useful and useable. This includes ensuring that the utility has the proper resources and skills within the organisation to monitor and respond to social media inquiries. Currently, SDG&E responds to 85 percent of tweets within one hour. Through training, SDGE&E ensures those who monitor and respond to customers through the new media are able to do so in a way that is expedient but also respectful, and consistent with the utility brand.

SDG&E’s overall objective is to provide a seamless connection with customers. “We want customers to have the same or similar service whether they reach us through Twitter, the Interactive Voice Response Unit website, or a human interaction,” said Winn. “We have worked hard to align the customer experience across all of our channels.”

Utilities must be focused, flexible, and proactive in the digital world to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding customer base.

By aligning new technologies with the fundamentals of efficient operations and customer insights, SDG&E has been able to successfully transverse the fast paced highways and byways of new communication media. The proof of success is in the results SDG&E has realised. SDG&E constantly sees positive remarks on its social media accounts, thanking the utility for the personalised and responsive online/social customer service that is often available through traditional channels such as phone or email. The utility is also able to demonstrate how it is helping customers conserve energy and manage load, which regulators appreciate.

Winn added, “Another important metric—customer engagement—is where we really see the difference. We have better avenues to listen to customers, and more direct, personalised ways of reaching them. We are seeing customers who are more interested in us and what we provide—no easy matter when you deal in the non-glamorous world of utility service.”

By leveraging digital communication channels for both customer service and operations, SDG&E has seized the opportunities that exist in new communication media. It has been able to strengthen its relationship with customers, open new avenues for offering services, and improve its access to real-time information in emergency situations.


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