EEC Perspectives

You Wanna Be Right, or Understood, in Your Utility Customer Communications?

I spoke with a utility communicator not too long ago who was having difficulty convincing the highly technical leader of her utility to use easily understood language in communicating with the public. The leader was a stickler for precision and comprehensiveness, which led to long and complicated communications with customers, which the communicator suspected were almost never read.

She probably was right. I sympathized and said the answer was simple: “أنا صحفي من أمريكا.”

She said, “Excuse me?”

I repeated my recommendation, with added emphasis: “أنا صحفي من أمريكا.”

When she looked at me blankly and said she didn’t understand, I said I was not surprised. I was speaking Arabic, which probably had the same effect on her as the general manager’s communications were having on the utility’s customers.

Utility Customer Communications: Use Words Customers Understand

Her boss was speaking “engineering,” probably because it was the language he knew and felt most comfortable. But my choice to speak in Arabic was to make a point about the futility of speaking to customers in a language they don’t understand.

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Is Your Utility Brand Trustworthy?

 

An old quote — “the more things change, the more they remain the same” — came to mind as I exited yet another conference on the strategic challenges reshaping the utility industry.

One much-discussed challenge was the changeover of the generation fleet, from coal to gas and renewables. That one’s way above most of our pay grades.

Something that’s a lot closer to our sphere of influence, though, is customer behavior. The separate but related challenges of rooftop solar, battery storage, net metering and learning thermostats all point to flat or negative load growth in the near term and potentially significant changes in the utility-customer relationship over the long term.

A Utility Brand is a Bundle of Attributes

But like the start of retail competition more than two decades ago, the current challenges can be managed effectively if an electric utility or electric cooperative has a brand that is trusted by its customers or members.

That’s as true today as it was two decades ago, when California, Texas and Pennsylvania began introducing retail electric competition. If you don’t give your customers a reason to investigate alternatives, most of them won’t. If you do, more of them will.

Customer trust also can shorten the time it takes a utility to recover from a crisis, a scandal or a shortfall.

Marketing professionals define a utility’s brand as a bundle of attributes that are meaningful to its target audience. Years ago, in a report written for E source, I interviewed a utility executive who was a little fuzzy about his company’s brand. First he confused branding with advertising, and then he said, “We just changed our logo. Isn’t that the same thing?” I expect we all have come a long way since then.

Market Strategies International (MSI) has been measuring the trustworthiness of utility brands for several years. Earlier this year it released Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential, a syndicated Cogent Reports™ study. The study looked at three areas — service satisfaction, product experience and brand trust — that roll up to the firm’s proprietary metric: Engaged Customer Relationship.

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Employee Communications: Showing Your True Colors on Day 1

Credit: iStock

Sometimes Saturdays come on Thursdays. When you own your own small business, you have to flex around client needs/crises, deadlines, business development, client management and lots of other to-dos. Going hard for three or four days in a row sometimes means your brain needs a day off. There are times my brain can’t wait until Saturday for a day off. When that happens, I’m glad I don’t have to fudge an excuse for my boss.

I wouldn’t trade owning a business for anything. Eight and one-half years into running my writing and consulting firm, I’m working harder than ever. But I am also happier and more fulfilled than ever.

One source of my fulfillment comes from learning new things by talking with whip-smart people in the electricity, natural gas or oil business. I feel re-energized when I speak with people who are taking a fresh, creative approach to perennial challenges, like employee communications.

I had plenty of opportunity to do that recently when researching an article for Public Power magazine. Although the article focused on best practices in customer service, a lot of the interviews ended up touching on organizational culture or employee communications, to one degree or another.

Employee Communications Reflect Organizational Values

Credit: EPB

Although I interviewed a number of people for that article, my interview with Karen Thomas (left), assistant vice president for customer relations for the Chattanooga Electric Power Board (EBP), a public power electric and telecommunications utility, really stood out.

A good bit of our conversation focused on EPB’s organizational transformation and the importance of clear and consistent communications.

It took EPB’s leaders years of concerted effort to become more customer-centered, Karen recalled. “It all starts with culture, and it has to start at the top. We looked at every business process we had and asked, ‘Do we do this for our convenience, or our customer’s convenience?’ If it was for our convenience, we changed it.”

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