EEC Perspectives

Awkward Conversations Utility Communicators Need to Have with Customers

Credit: The Odyssey Online

Credit: The Odyssey Online

Many of us would prefer to avoid awkward conversations if we can. We turn evasive when our children ask us, “Where do babies come from?” At a party, someone asks about the presidential candidates and most people go into full-on fudge mode. Stalling, evading and dissembling are seen as preferable to having a conversation that makes us uncomfortable.

The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, holds valuable communications lessons for electric and gas utilities. Typically, utility executives are reluctant to discuss with customers the need to invest in infrastructure, because that brings on the discussion of price increases. It’s awkward, it’s negative, it’s a sleeping dog we should let lie.

No, we shouldn’t. The water crisis in Flint is what happens when a utility doesn’t maintain its infrastructure. And there is mounting evidence the water infrastructure crisis is a national one that spreads well beyond Flint.

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Leave aside all the political finger-pointing, of which there is plenty. Forget partisan politics if you can. Overlook the special conditions, such as the city of Flint being in receivership. Ignore claims of racism. At its core, the Flint water crisis is a story of a utility placing its customers at risk because it didn’t do its most basic job: maintain its infrastructure.

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Utility Communicators: Making Lemonade out of Lemons

Lemon juice in pitcher and glass with citrus squeezer and fresh lemon isolated on white

iStock Photo

When I talk to media relations representatives at utilities, I often hear how difficult their jobs have become. Newspapers have closed. Dailies have become twice-weeklies. The news hole is shrinking. Veteran reporters who used to cover the utility have taken a package. If those veterans are replaced (and their positions are not always back-filled), it typically is with a shiny new journalism-school graduate who covers cops (on Mondays), schools (on Tuesdays) and business — in whatever flavor — on Thursdays. The loss of institutional memory has made it harder to place favorable stories about the utility in any media outlet.

For media relations practitioners, the print media outlook certainly is grim. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to place a story, especially if it requires more than five column-inches and does not include a photo of linemen rescuing kittens from power poles.

And yes, the outlook is even grimmer in the broadcast media, with their breathless coverage of car accidents, severe weather, high-school sports and miraculous recoveries from tragic illnesses. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been the mantra for TV news for the 30 years I have been in the utility communications game. That, too, shows no sign of changing any time soon.

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At the Movies: How KUA Connects with Customers

Courtesy KUA

Courtesy KUA

Utility marketers and communicators I speak with remain intrigued by the idea of direct interaction with their clients, contacts not mediated by email, social media, the news media or the contact center’s voice-response unit (VRU). They understand the power of personally connecting with customers.

But these utility representatives I speak with seem fixated on the logistical challenges of direct outreach: “We understand email has passed the point of diminishing returns,” they say. “But our community relations department only has three employees, and we serve over 100,000 customers. You do the math. How are we supposed to make personal contact with our customers?”

Well, why not invite them to the movies? A Florida locally owned utility, KUA (Kissimmee Utility Authority), has just wrapped its second season of “Movie in the Park,” and they report outstanding results.

A little background on KUA. It thinks—and acts—differently. Even among its public-power utility peers, it has created a well-deserved reputation for finding creative, cost-effective ways to connect personally with its customer-owners. A few years back, I profiled another creative outreach initiative from KUA: its grill-lending service. Don’t laugh—KUA’s Big Grill is a trailer-mounted, propane-fired, barbecue grill that boasts 40-square-feet of cooking surface, twin 40-pound propane tanks, a 35-gallon water tank and collapsible stainless steel food prep counters on each side.
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