Communications and Customer Care

Customer service begins at home: Tips from the top of the class

Despite overbooked flights with undersized seats and frequent delays, the airline industry earns higher customer satisfaction scores than the utilities sector in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Still, the electric industry has its share of high-flyers that are leading the way in exceeding customer expectations.

What sets top-tier utilities apart? Customer care that goes beyond low average call center response times or the availability of self-help functions online. Public power utilities with consistently top-rated customer service, as measured by J.D. Power and other independent research groups, shared strategies for creating a personal touch that transforms customer-facing business processes into loyalty-building opportunities.

Taking the customer’s view

The utilities we talked to have extensive programs to learn more about customer needs and wants. Each one also does “journey mapping,” an exercise that looks at the steps required for a customer to complete a task, such as moving or disconnecting service.

“What does that journey look like from a customer perspective?” asked Brandy Bolden, director, customer care and revenue operations at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, a northern California public power utility with 635,000 customers. “We’re not just looking at this from a process perspective, but how do customers interact with us? When do they interact? What are they experiencing, looking at, and feeling along that journey?”

Along with journey mapping, utilities conduct surveys and focus groups and review online feedback. Salt River Project, which serves more than a million customers in the Phoenix area, has an online customer panel consisting of a few thousand people that the utility taps for opinions, noted Michael Mendonca, senior director of customer services. “We are in the field almost every day with some type of research,” he said.

Omaha Public Power District, which serves nearly 400,000 customers in southeastern Nebraska, does this type of research, too. It has a formal feedback page, OPPD Listens, dedicated to gathering public input on touchy topics like new transmission lines.

SMUD, SRP, and OPPD also segment customers by consumption level, interests, and, sometimes, by industry. They target certain segments, particularly large businesses, with special programs.

For example, in Sacramento, California, the cannabis sector has prompted SMUD to create a cannabis operations team. “There is never any down time with an indoor cultivator,” said Bolden. “We need to make sure that we understand our growers’ capacity needs, and we’re being very proactive in working with them and making investments so that we’re ready to serve them when they’re ready to come online.”

To this end, SMUD conducted detailed research on using LED lighting instead of power-hungry high-pressure sodium lighting. “A facility with 10,000 square feet of flowering space can draw up to 550 kW of power for just lighting alone,” noted a study SMUD produced on this research. “For comparison, a modern 10,000-square-foot commercial office space would require only around 8 kW for lighting.” SMUD makes the results of its research available to indoor cultivators to help them slash power usage.

More consumption, more contact

Advising business customers is often a face-to-face effort. Each public power utility has dedicated account representatives to work with large business customers. OPPD strengthens ties through an annual meeting as well.

“This typically happens in the fall, when those companies are working through their operating budgets,” said Stacey Bryant, OPPD manager of customer care services. “It gives them a little additional foresight into what next year will look like.” At the event, customers hear directly from OPPD’s CEO and sit side-by-side with executives from the organization. “We’re there to answer any questions they may have,” Bryant added.

In all three utilities, representatives also try to proactively answer a question that business customers should have: What’s the best rate plan for my organization? SRP does this for both large business customers and the smaller ones. “We use a price plan comparison that applies different rate plans against historical usage and aligns the customer with the best plan for them moving forward,” explained Steven Lopez, senior director of customer strategy. Then, his utility reaches out to present the findings and help customers lower their bills. 

Training and empowering staff

Continuous training plays into excellent customer service scores. SMUD, for instance, uses its journey mapping insights to help representatives understand how customers might be feeling during various types of calls. “We often hear from customers who are struggling to pay,” said Bolden. “Making representatives aware of how that customer might be feeling allows us to provide supportive customer service during what may be a difficult moment. We want our reps to say, ‘I am so sorry this is happening. Let’s see what we can do. I’m here to support you.’”

“We focus as much on the employee experience as we do the customer experience,” said OPPD’s Bryant. “A happy employee is going to serve customers well, so there’s been a very concerted effort to connect frontline employees with the broader organization to give them a greater sense of purpose for what they do.”

That means call center representatives learn about tree trimming directly from the forestry department and discover what outage jargon means directly from lineworkers so they can translate it for customers on the phone. In fact, representatives even get some ride-along time with field workers to see firsthand how lines are fixed and maintained.

Back in the call center, OPPD has put great effort into teaching frontline representatives the concept of positive language positioning, said Jennifer Johnston, director of customer experience. “It’s a matter of reframing the way you share information.”

For example, said Johnston, “If a customer is moving service, we need a little advance notice so we can schedule a meter reading. Saying something like, ‘Our next available date to transfer the service is Wednesday’ sounds a whole lot better than saying ‘We can’t schedule that reading until Wednesday.’”

SRP teaches call center representatives to deal with the whole person and that person’s circumstances, not just the problem at hand. Mendonca offered this example: A customer calls needing more time to pay a bill. The rep who answers that call might review the account to see if the customer is late every month. “Maybe their due date would be better suited for a different time, and the rep could offer to move it,” he said. “Or maybe the customer struggles to pay each month, and they may be eligible for our economy price plan, which is a discount for limited-income individuals.”

If the rep hears about some life event that had an impact on finances, that rep might refer the customer to the utility’s credit counseling group, which could connect the customer to community resources that can help get the bills paid. The goal is to go beyond saying, “Yes, you can have two extra weeks to pay your bill,” and help customers in a more significant and meaningful way.

Along with being well trained, agents at utilities known for customer service have authority. “We’ve moved to empower our agents to make more decisions outside of policy,” said Mendonca. “It might be waiving a fee in response to a unique scenario or giving a customer a credit on their bill” after a negative experience or inconvenience. Mendonca said this empowerment helps improve the utility’s first-contact issue resolution numbers.

Another point of empowerment SRP has made comes through an online purchasing arrangement with Hallmark. When a representative hears about some important life event, such as the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, or deployment to military service, he or she can prompt the utility to send an appropriate card expressing congratulations on the new baby, sympathy for the loss, or gratitude for service to the country.

A digital-first mindset

Research conducted by American Express found that more than 60% of Americans prefer to solve their basic customer service issues through a self-service site or app. Not surprisingly, SMUD, SRP, and OPPD use robust self-help portals and offer plenty of online options for self-service.

OPPD has some soft-touch technology, too. “After completing certain phone and online transactions, we send them a confirmation so that they’re assured things are all set up,” said Johnston. “People are busy, so any kind of reminder to prevent them having to call back or reach out to us again is helpful.”

“We are constantly re-evaluating all our digital platforms,” said SRP’s Lopez, who said evaluations focus on whether the platforms are meeting customer needs.

SMUD takes similar steps and has found that about 30% of customers tend to interact and transact online or via apps. That’s why the utility has a “digital first” strategy to meet that group, its largest customer segment.

“Over the past year or two, we’ve rolled out a laundry list of digital enhancements,” said Bolden. These include email or text alerts that signal when an outage is underway or the customer is approaching a cost threshold, and mid-bill estimates to help customers stay on track with budgeting. It also includes auto-reconnect, which allows customers to go online to pay a delinquent bill and be reconnected immediately.

Nifty digital tools help but, in the end, excellent customer service boils down to how the people who sell treat the people who buy from them.

“It all comes down to culture,” said Lopez. He added that great customer service isn’t just something employees deliver; it’s part of who they are. “It’s in our DNA,” he said.