Customer engagement goes beyond satisfaction


The utility-customer relationship is undergoing a drastic transformation -- the first in decades. Utilities have been plagued almost from their inception by the attitude that customers are just ratepayers. And customers have returned that outlook with minimal engagement or understanding about how utility companies operate and distribute power.

Now, the norms are changing, driven by cable, internet and mobile phone companies, who are all ramping up their customer service game. This leads to consumers -- not ratepayers -- that expect more from their service providers. Utilities, too, are beginning to see the value in adopting a customer-centric approach that embraces technology and communication.

Beyond satisfaction

The energy industry still seems to be struggling with exactly what "satisfaction" means, but the tools exist to achieve this higher level of engagement. If executed properly, the benefits can be immense for both the customer and the utility. The key is to deliver consistent, positive experiences that lead to trust and brand loyalty.

"I personally think that for the first time in history, customers have the upper hand," said Maureen Russolo, Senior Director of Strategic Customer Relations at E Source, in an interview with FierceEnergy.

Satisfaction is just the "tip of the iceberg for utilities," according to Russolo, and "true customer engagement goes much deeper."

"Satisfaction alone does not mean, in the face of competition, that a customer won't change providers or services," she said .

Achieving a base of satisfaction is even more pertinent for utilities, as customers are often powerless to choose their energy provider and are often skeptical from the start.

E Source finds that positive experiences foster trust, which leads to customer engagement and even activism.  ___________________________

"Utilities almost have to prove themselves to the customers," Russolo said.

E Source has developed a customer satisfaction hierarchy to augment utility understanding of customer engagement development. The progression is that positive experiences foster trust, which leads to customer engagement and even activism. This model will be expanded upon in 2013 into a comprehensive, step-by-step framework for utilities.

E Source views advocacy as the pinnacle of utility success. This is the point at which customers are comfortable supporting and promoting their utility in tough situations such as prolonged outages, rate increases, or infrastructure upgrades.

Technology driving customer expectations

Technology is also a pushing a consumer desire for more engagement.

"One of the nice things about smart grid…is the fact that it's based on innovation. It's based on transformation," said Kris Roberts of Smart Utility Systems, during a recent webinar.

He agreed that the utility industry has been held back by the mentality of simply selling a service to customers.  But he said that technology fosters a more interested customer, one that hungers for more information and awareness of their behaviors, including energy use. 

"[Customers] want to be involved in the technology that allows them to engage with third-party providers to a utility company or with the utility directly themselves," he said.

If utilities don't change, they risk being overtaken by third parties that can provide many of the same services. This is a challenge, especially as energy providers scurry to develop new revenue sources through demand-side management and energy-efficiency programs. And now they are dealing with competition -- something many power companies are not used to managing.

"A set of third-party products are coming in that actually can provide the same service and the same set of solutions that a utility does," said G. Satish, Senior Vice President of Business Development and Solutions at Smart Utility Systems.

Russolo agreed, noting that she sees as an expansion of the utility industry including professionals from other areas.

"A lot of people are coming into the utility industry who have worked in other industries, and we're learning a lot about competition and that it can't be the same old approach we've used in a regulated monopoly," she said.