Public power utilities of all sizes are putting more effort than ever into keeping their customers satisfied.
“Our customers are our owners, and if we’re not keeping them happy we’re not doing our job,” said Melissa Barnes, human resources manager at Marshfield Utilities, a 112-year-old, 13,000-customer municipal electric utility in central Wisconsin.
Barnes admitted that before she joined the utility’s staff a few years ago she was one of the many Marshfield Utilities customers who had what she called a neutral relationship with the utility. “The lights stayed on. I paid my bill. I really didn’t give it much thought.”
More recently, though, Barnes has come to understand the importance of a two-way relationship between a utility and its customers. “We need to keep our customers informed about what we offer and what we’re doing in the community, and we need to find out what they expect from us, and how good of a job we’re doing,” she said.
To assess the utility’s own job performance, Marshfield Utilities recently undertook a customer satisfaction survey — its first in several years, and far more comprehensive than the last one, Barnes said. The results are still being tabulated, she said, but are sure to help the utility understand what improvements it still needs to make.
Steve VanderMeer, senior vice president of planning and marketing at Hometown Connections, APPA’s utility services subsidiary, said that customer expectations from their electric utility and other providers of essential services have been changing rapidly. Just a few years ago, he said, almost all utility/customer interactions occurred during 8-to-5 office hours.
“Now, everyone expects 24/7 access” — the ability to sign up for service, pay a bill, or ask a question whenever it is most convenient for the customer. And in addition to access by telephone, many customers expect to be able to interact with their utility via computer or even smartphone. Tech-savvy customers also have growing expectations about being able to receive email or text notifications about the estimated duration of a power outage or about higher-than-normal power usage.
Another factor in the evolving relationship between utilities and their customers, VanderMeer said, is that while utilities maintain monopoly status, there are an increasing number of ways in which customers can take a more active role in managing their energy use — even in generating their own electricity with rooftop solar panels, diesel, or natural gas-fired microturbines.
Since early 2015, Hometown Connections has been working with GreatBlue Research to help public power utilities, joint action agencies, and other public power organizations gain a clearer, deeper understanding of what their customers want and expect from their utilities in this fast-changing environment, and also help utilities act on what they learn.
Tobias Sellier, communications director at APPA, said that a recent survey of 1,600 public power customers — half questioned online and half in personal interviews — found that the vast majority rated their utility favorably when compared with their natural gas, telephone, cable and internet providers. Still, he said, many utilities “are not good at tooting their own horn” and as a result, about one-quarter of customers polled were not aware their utility was, in fact, publicly owned.
GreatBlue CEO Michael Vigeant said that when assessing customer satisfaction, it is important to remember that all customers are not alike — far from it, in fact. For example, he said, residential, commercial and industrial customers have different needs and expectations from their utility, with larger customers typically requiring more regular interactions with utility staffers.
There also are major differences between younger and older customers, Vigeant said. “Younger customers are much more likely to engage digitally” — that is, via computer or smartphone.
“You also have to remember that not all of your customers are English-speaking,” said Suzanne Hartman, communications manager at the Chelan County Public Utility District in Wenatchee, Washington. She said that about 30 percent of the population served by the 50,000-customer utility is Hispanic, and that while some of these customers are bilingual, many are not.
To make it easier for Spanish-speaking customers of the Chelan County PUD to interact with the utility — and to optimize their satisfaction with the utility — the utility’s recently updated website is now fully bilingual.
Hartman said that the PUD also is in the midst of conducting a customer-satisfaction survey; the results will be in soon. She said that another approach the utility uses to improve customers’ satisfaction is to examine the steps customers go through in typical interactions with the utility — signing up for new service, questioning a bill, etc. — and then see if there are ways the processes can be streamlined and made easier.
“It can be a real eye-opener” when a staffer puts himself or herself in the place of a customer, Hartman said.
Kady Darwich, energy management representative at New Bern, North Carolina’s 27,000-customer municipal utility, believes education is an essential element to ensuring customers are satisfied.
Among other things, she said, the utility has a program to help customers understand the relationship between weather and electricity use. “Most customer complaints about their bills come in the winter and summer,” Darwich said, adding that the utility’s programs help customers understand that if they make even modest temperature adjustments to their heating or air conditioning systems, they can realize substantial savings on their electric bills.
New Bern’s utility also has been focusing on students — or, as Darwich refers to them, “future customers … It’s amazing how thoughtful [the students] were” on energy conservation and other electric-related issues, she said.
Further, New Bern publishes separate newsletters for residential and commercial customers with articles aimed at educating them about rates, energy efficiency and other topics, all with the aim of improving customers’ understanding of what their utility does and what customers themselves can do to manage their electric use. With knowledge comes understanding, Darwich said, and with understanding come higher levels of customer satisfaction.
Finally, she said, New Bern is developing a key accounts program that will pair the utility’s staffers with large commercial and industrial customers to keep them informed about rates, energy efficiency programs and other utility initiatives, and to address customer questions and concerns as quickly as possible.
Communication is key
Key account managers already are a mainstay at many larger public power entities, which view high levels of service to big commercial and industrial customers as a prerequisite to big-customer satisfaction.
“We have 10 account executives that serve 220 key accounts,” said Jim Krist, manager of key account sales and service at the Omaha Public Power District, a large Nebraska utility.
Krist said the account executives are so hands-on that their annual energy reviews of key accounts are actually conducted every six months or so, all with the aim of ensuring that the customers under their care are operating as efficiently as possible and are on the most appropriate rate.
OPPD’s account executives meet with key account customers “based upon the customers’ schedules and needs,” not the other way around, said Krist. He said this personal attention has resulted in customer satisfaction levels approaching 100 percent, despite the rate increases that OPPD — like many other utilities — has had to implement in recent years due to tightening environmental regulations.
The effort of Krist’s key-accounts team helped give OPPD the top spot among mid-sized Midwest utilities in J.D. Power & Associates’ 2016 Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Survey, which measures satisfaction among business customers of U.S. utilities serving more than 25,000 commercial and industrial customers.
Jeff Conklin, senior director in J.D. Power’s energy utilities and smart energy practices department, said that overall customer satisfaction is considered across six factors: power quality and reliability, corporate citizenship, price, billing and payment, communications, and customer service.
“In our surveys, we take customers through the experience with the service provider, in this case an electric utility,” Conklin said. “We ask about things like service interruption — how long did the interruption last, were they kept informed through the restoration process.”
All of the questions, he said, are aimed at determining whether the customer believes he is valued by the utility in question. “Communication is key … The best utilities have become much more proactive with alerts and notifications, both in the billing category and the outage category.”
For example, Conklin said, a customer may opt to receive reminders that a bill is nearly due, or that the customer’s monthly electric use is close to reaching a usage or spending threshold. “Utilities also have been doing a much better job keeping their customers informed about what they’re doing, and what programs and services they have available.”
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