Quick Hits and Short Takes: Value, Culture, and Stories

Value or Price? Yes!

It’s been an extremely rainy 2023 here in Denver: In the first six months of this year, we got more rain than we typically get in an average year. When I speak to my friends from the Pacific Northwest, I tell them we have had their weather and we’d like to send it back.

It’s been so wet this year, and it is raining as I write this, that we have only used our lawn irrigation system half a dozen times since April. In a normal hot and dry summer, we use it two to three times a week.

We got our water bill the other day and there was a hefty price increase of about 9%. But it wasn’t because our use of the commodity was up. Because of the rain, our usage is only about 25% of what it would be in a normal year. No, the higher price was so my community could upgrade its water system.

That reminded me of something I heard when I worked for a water and power utility: “As long as the value we deliver is growing faster than the price we charge, we’ll be OK. We get in trouble when the price is rising faster than the value.”

Words to live by! Utilities across the country have been increasing the price they charge for their electricity, gas, or water, for reasons those of us working in or covering the utility industry understand. But we still need to find creative and helpful ways — and above all, easily understandable ones! — to inform customers. How should we do this?

 Rule #1: Don’t use the word “infrastructure” in your communications! If your utility delivers electricity, I recommend using a term like “poles and wires,” which most people should understand. If you deliver natural gas or water, speak about “pipes and valves.” Whatever service you provide, you also could say “ongoing repairs and system additions,” “safety enhancements,” or “equipment upgrades.” This is one time when precision needs to give way to the greater good of understandability.

So, assuming your utility is providing excellent service, how can you add value?

Here’s what some utilities did to add value to their service:

  • A city-owned multiservice utility sponsored a twice-yearly prescription drug drop off program where customers could drop off their unused and unwanted medication rather than pour them down the toilet or put them in the trash. Keeping those medications out of the waste stream meant the city didn’t have to pay to remove them.
  • That same utility also collected, at no charge, customers’ unwanted televisions, CFLs, water heaters, computers, printers, and fats, oils, and grease to keep those contaminants out of the water and waste systems.
  • Another electric utility has a program, called “Helping Hands,” where customers who provide a doctor’s note confirming their limited mobility can have their trash cans brought to the sidewalk each week by utility workers so the city’s sanitation crews can empty them during their regular curbside pickup routes. There is no charge for this service. And customers with no mobility limitations can pay about $50 per month to have utility workers roll their trash cans to the sidewalk each week.

Other ideas could include introducing renewable electric (or gas) service, easing deposits for new customers, allowing customers to choose their bill payment date, or keeping the customer contact center open 24/7/365.

Communications Tip of the Month: Anchoring your communications — to customers or employees — in real-life stories is the best way to get your content read. Incorporating your utility’s value and culture also helps.

Culture: The Secret Sauce of Success

The first time I heard this management consultant truism — “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — I assumed it had been around the block a few times. But it remains true. For a forthcoming article in Public Power Magazine, I interviewed three public power customer-service leaders and heard variants on the same theme.

In the words of J. Ed (Jed) Marston, EPB’s vice president of strategic communications at the Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga:

“Culture is all about screening, training, and rewarding the desired behaviors that affect the customer. We are absolutely in the customer business.”

Linda Ferrone, OUC’s chief customer and marketing officer, added that 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.”

A third source, Cameron Daline, manager of customer experience at Clark Public Utilities, said,

“Customer satisfaction, as measured by J.D. Power, is a byproduct of your culture. It’s an external manifestation of internal processes.”

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.

A utility’s communicators have a critical role in maintaining, or modifying, an organization’s culture. But they can’t do it alone. Ultimately, culture is everyone’s job.

Photo Credit: Alamy

Master Storyteller: Carlos Santana

“Sharing didn’t come easy when I was 9,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal profile of guitarist Carlos Santana. “Sitting on a sofa in the living room of my violin teacher while he was in the kitchen, my hands found almost $2 in change between the cushions.”

“After my lesson, I went to the candy store and spent all of it on M&Ms and Baby Ruth bars. At home, my mom was hanging laundry outside, so I started eating the candy and finished all of it.

 When she discovered I’d spent almost $2 on candy and didn’t share it with my brothers and sisters, she let me have it. After that day, sharing became second nature for me and eventually extended to music and performing.”

These words were written by a professional journalist, Marc Myers. But placed at the front of an article, they are a powerful hook that quickly pulls the reader inside. You find yourself sitting alongside young Carlos, the middle child of seven who shared a bedroom with brothers Tony and Jorge. Before long, when Carlos was seven, the family journeyed north to Tijuana, following a path made by the violin-playing father. The reader mentally travels with the impoverished family.

Telling stories is harder than flinging facts and dispensing data. Telling them well is harder than it looks. But a professional can make it look easy.

At age 75, Carlos Santana has won 10 Grammys. He fronted the group Santana, played at Woodstock in 1969, and pioneered Latin American jazz-fusion. He is the subject of a forthcoming documentary. He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. But for all his accomplishments, the candy story allows the reader to make an immediate, tangible, and relatable connection to the legendary rock star.

So, remember, value, culture, and stories will help you communicate more effectively with your customers and employees. The fastest way to get to their brains is by touching their hearts.

Photo credits: iStock unless otherwise noted

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