Public power takes pride in its connection to the community, and little better embodies this connection than the relationship between the utility and its customer-owners. Public power utilities that truly go above and beyond when it comes to customer service are intentional about fostering an organizational culture that hires, highlights, and honors acts of superior customer service. These utilities — such as Clark Public Utilities of Vancouver, Washington, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Orlando Utilities Commission in Florida — regularly appear at the top of various electric utility customer satisfaction or customer service surveys, such as those conducted by J.D. Power, Escalent, and others.
Hiring for Cultural Fit
Organizational culture is the powerful sum of formal and informal traditions, beliefs, rules, procedures, and practices that determine what work is done, and how it is done, in an organization. Discount its power at your own risk.
In the words of J.Ed. Marston, EPB’s vice president of strategic communications, “Culture is all about screening, training, and rewarding the desired behaviors that affect the customer.” EBP provides electricity to about 180,000 customers and fiber service to 130,000 customers in the greater Chattanooga, Tennessee area.
“We always want to treat customers as if they have a choice,” Marston said. The utility is a monopoly provider of electricity, but it competes with other providers in its fiber business. Over 75% of its electric customers have signed up for fiber service, for which there are several competitors.
He said utilities that operate as if they are in the “cheap kilowatt-hours” business, rather than the “customer” business, “have allowed our industry to become commodified and thus under-valued. Utilities must stop thinking they’re the only game in town.”
“Cultural fit is critical, and we are very intentional about it,” said Marston. “We want to hire people who want to perform meaningful work, and we organize our culture around it. We live here, we work here, and improving the community is what drives us.”
Angela Henry and Kimberly Biddy knew they were in for something different when they sat for their separate interviews at EPB four years ago. Both had worked in profit-seeking businesses — Kimberly at an advertising agency and Angela in mobile communications — and they welcomed the change that was signaled during their EPB interviews.
“It has really been a breath of fresh air to be able to work for the good of the customer and community rather than cutting costs to chase profits,” said Biddy, EPB’s manager of social, digital, and traditional media. “We’re all here to serve the customer, no matter our title or department. During widespread outages, we all pitched in, cooking food and washing clothes for the mutual aid crews.”
“During my interview, I was screened about my passion for service. The interviewers were really candid in telling me about the good, bad, and ugly aspects of life at EPB, because they wanted me to know what I was getting into,” added Henry, EPB’s manager of quality assurance and director of customer relations.
For example, if a customer calls EPB at 2 am on Christmas Day, he or she will be able to speak with a customer service representative. The EPB contact center is staffed around the clock, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The Orlando Utility Commission, or OUC, which provides electric, water, chilled water, lighting, and solar services to more than 400,000 accounts in Orlando, St. Cloud, and parts of unincorporated Orange and Osceola counties in Florida, also emphasizes customer service within its culture.
Linda Ferrone, OUC’s chief customer and marketing officer, said culture is one of three pillars of the utility’s business strategy, alongside employees and the community. “Everyone who works here has the customer in mind, because we’re ultimately in the customer business. Caring and collaboration matter. They are harder than they sound, but they are critical ingredients for success. When we hire, it is all about the customer and each other.”
Reinforce Desired Behaviors
“Do the right thing” and “value the customer” are two of the six core values OUC has adopted, and those values are woven into all internal communications, according to Derek Hudson, OUC’s public relations manager.
Organizations can reinforce the behavior they seek from employees in several ways. Some use bonuses or cash incentive programs driven by different metrics, such as safety or customer satisfaction. Others, like Clark Public Utilities in Washington state, prefer to focus on non-cash ways to publicly recognize employees who go above and beyond.
Cameron Daline, Clark Public Utilities’ manager of customer experience, said, “We tell, and try to show, our employees that it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,” a take on the famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “Every customer interaction is an opportunity to do the right thing. We don’t just go the extra mile for customers — we go an extra 50 miles to do the right thing.”
Daline said the utility makes a point of collecting and sharing instances where employees showcase this value. For example, the CSR who worked to locate emergency bill-payment resources from outside agencies for a customer who had several months of unpaid water bills and was scheduled to have their water turned off, which would mean a child welfare agency would remove their children from the home. Or when employees donated to a fund to buy food for a needy customer. In another example, a lineworker stopped their truck to help another employee who was picking up trash.
"Customer satisfaction, as measured by J.D. Power, is a byproduct of your culture,” Daline said. “It’s an external manifestation of internal processes.”
It doesn’t just happen. Twice a year, Clark holds mandatory training workshops twice a year for all employees that explore and reinforce the utility’s culture of customer service. “We use that to show that our culture of service is part of everyone’s job,” he said, adding that a large part of his job is to show how the work of every single employee connects to customers.
Managers at the Vancouver-based utility have several ways to publicly recognize employees who do the right thing for customers: The “All Star” program, “Hats Off,” and “High Five.”
In addition, Daline said that for over 35 years, Clark has had a non-cash incentive program, “Goal Rush,” that provides additional paid time off to employees who meet a specific set of metrics. Each of those metrics affect customer service, he said.
Although all of Clark’s employees are in the customer business, about 25% are employed as CSRs. At EPB, that percentage is 18%.
How can someone who doesn’t directly interact with customers affect customer service? EPB’s Marston explained: Employees who work in marketing could develop talking points for the CSRs to explain a new program or service offering. Employees who work in accounting could participate in a cross-functional team to remove bottlenecks in the bill-payment self-service application.
“Superlative internal customer service enables superlative external customer service,” he said.
Public power utilities rely on a blend of CSAT scores, as measured by the annual J.D. Power surveys, and qualitative and quantitative customer feedback to determine whether they are providing exemplary service. EPB, OUC, and Clark Public Utilities all have been long-time top-quartile CSAT performers in the J.D. Power survey.
They also measure success – and share customer comments and kudos to employees – as signs of high-quality service.
EPB shared several customer kudos, including:
- “Whitney took care of my issues, she’s really good at her job. No one talks to me like that on the phone! She took care of the problem and took care of me.”
- “Katrina took really good care of me today. She was very patient and informative, and slowed down and took her time patiently explaining things.”
- “Melanie was sweet, helpful, and the nicest person I’ve ever spoken with.”
- “David was so nice and professional. Sometimes nice people get lost in the shuffle and I didn’t want that to happen to David.”
Similarly, Clark Public Utilities has a received a bevy of customer kudos and “thank you” notes, including:
- “Just a note to thank you for all you do in keeping us all cozy and warm during these hard times.”
- “Thank you so much for fixing our power so fast after a snowstorm in the middle of the night”
- “A few weeks ago, we had a very large /heavy dead tree branch poised to fall and rip out the power line between our house and a conveyance pole,” wrote some customers. “Clark Public Utilities got an assessment team out within one day after my call for help, and CPU linemen teamed up with a man from Asplundh. They quickly downed the line and removed the threatening tree branch, barely even disrupting our power. We are so thankful that CPU is so dedicated to great service and has such exemplary employees.”
Practical Implications of Being in the Customer Business
Being focused on customer needs drove OUC to install solar cells atop bus stations and install cell phone chargers there so people could recharge their devices while they waited for a bus.
The utility also has a program, Efficiency Delivered®, that provides up to $2,500 of energy- and water-efficiency upgrades for low-and moderate-income customers. Qualifying customers who opt to install additional measures can pay for them over a 24-month period on their bill, with no interest charges.
“Doing the right thing is not always cheap, but it is always right,” commented OUC’s Luz Aviles, a 29-year veteran of the utility who is its director of customer experience.
“We sit, we listen, and we don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to customer service,” she continued. “In our recent integrated resource planning process, we engaged the community to learn more about what they wanted. They said they wanted their energy to be sustainable as well as reliable, affordable, and resilient. We listened and we responded” by increasing the utility’s investment in renewable energy.
Sometimes, utilities let organizational silos impede the delivery of superior service. That’s when it helps to have a chief customer officer, empowered to revise processes, and break down organizational silos to provide better service.
That’s been Linda Ferrone’s experience at OUC. The chief customer officer since 2018, she reports to OUC’s general manager and chief executive officer, Clint Bullock. “Part of my job is to bring the customer voice into internal discussions and break up organizational silos when necessary. It helps to have a direct report to the CEO with that mandate, because there are so many processes that affect customers, but not all of them were designed with the customer in mind.”
OUC is one of several public power utilities that have conducted a journey-mapping exercise to identify all the ways customers interact with the utility, and identify processes that needed to be improved.
Commented Terry Torres, OUC’s director of customer experience, “We assessed all the customer touchpoints, including the website, the integrated voice response system and our CSRs, and found about eight areas that needed to be improved.”
She said employees are empowered to bring customer or process issues to the attention of management so they can be fixed.
All of those interviewed agreed that providing superior customer service is a way to lower costs. There was a generalized push back against traditional thinking that customer service investments only added new costs without creating new benefits.
Said OUC’s Ferrone, “You only have one chance to make a great first impression. Customers need a great experience every time they interact with you to continue to choose to do business with you. But when you earn the benefit of the doubt, you will get extra grace from them when there’s a problem or challenge.”