Chip James, eTouchPoint 2017-08-31 04:48:42
Traditionally, utility customers were happy receiving reliable service and paying stable rates — and energy companies placed significant resources on operational efficiency to meet those core expectations. But today’s customer landscape has changed. Consumers are accustomed to high levels of service in other industries, and they have brought these expectations to their relationship with utilities. Are utilities keeping up? Some are, but many aren’t. In fact, a cross-industry customer experience (CX) study of 10,000 consumers by a leading customer experience think tank, the Temkin Group, revealed below-average CX results for utilities — with the overall results falling into the “poor” category. Other industries noted for subpar service — including wireless carriers, auto dealers and rental car agencies — also received poor consumer ratings. One forward-thinking natural gas utility made important strides toward improving customer communications — and the overall customer experience — by revitalizing its survey practices. With a history dating back to the mid-1800s and a track record of serving nine out of 10 new homes in its local territory, the Mid-Atlantic utility adopted innovative CX technology to maintain its strong presence. The utility accelerated its feedback gathering and instituted a mix of industry-proven, custom metrics to gain better customer insights. A communications shift from annual to real-time With more than one million residential, commercial, industrial and government customers, the natural gas utility spans a multistate geographic territory. Company leaders recognized the importance of listening to customers, but cumbersome, paper-based processes hindered this goal. At the beginning of 2016, the utility’s customer feedback gathering process was 100-percent manual. Once a year, the company mailed more than 15,000 surveys to customers and received 2,000 responses, for an 11-percent response rate. The slow-moving survey distribution and analysis process prevented the company from making meaningful change based on customers’ feedback. In addition, the company lacked insight into the performance of different components of its frontline team, which include field technicians and contact center representatives. After making the commitment to automate its CX feedback gathering, the utility saw dramatic changes in a few months. They adopted an automated, interactive voice response (IVR) survey, which was delivered to customers after an interaction with a frontline representative. This shortened the time to receive CX feedback from once a year to three-to-five days. Another important advantage: internal CX stakeholders can access customer feedback in real-time. Plus, leaders can review customer feedback across multiple dimensions — including tracking surveys to specific customers, technicians and even contractors. This gives them at-a-glance insights into the performance of their customer-facing teams. As an added benefit, the utility has implemented an alerting process to notify stakeholders about low survey scores. With this feature, the company can distinguish between one-off and systemic service issues. In turn, frontline managers can develop communications practices to follow-up personally with unhappy customers, which will help diminish recurring service problems over time. Giving customers a voice As part of its CX feedback implementation process, the company ensured that it created a well-rounded survey that provides meaningful customer insight. The survey features both quantitative and qualitative metrics. That way, it can track performance against set benchmarks and listen to authentic customer perspectives. The first three questions of the survey focus on the practical matter of whether a field technician completed the job and reviewed the work performed with the customer. This allows the company to assess its “first-time fix” rate, or its capability to address issues with a single visit. Why is this so important? A lack of a first-time fix is the top source of customer complaints, according to The Service Council, a research organization focused on service and customer management. In addition, the survey includes questions tied to two, proven CX metrics: • Customer Effort Score (CES) — a metric that evaluates how much effort a customer needs to expend during a transaction. • Overall Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) — a metric that assesses customers’ overall satisfaction with a service or product. CES helps the utility understand how to make service visits more effective for customers. According to the Utilities Customer Research Consortium (UCRC), by adopting CES — and other metrics to gauge customer engagement — energy companies can safeguard themselves against industrywide shifts. UCRC argues that in the coming years, some utilities may no longer operate in a monopoly environment, as consumers seek out greater energy efficiency and alternative power options. This makes focusing on customer loyalty an imperative. In an energycentral.com article, “Making the Case for Alternative Customer Metrics,” Jamie Wimberly asserts that lowering customer effort can prevent unwanted issues from surfacing to regulators: “Likewise, what happens when customers are frustrated? They complain. And if they are really angry, they will complain to the regulator and media. Many utility executives point to increasing customer satisfaction as necessary to achieve optimal regulatory outcomes; however, by far, the number-one driver of regulatory action in the customer arena is the level of complaints.” The other industry-standard metric, CSAT, gives the company insight into frontline team performance. With this metric, CX leaders can understand how well specific technicians engage with customers and have a view into the effectiveness of targeted training initiatives. Over the long-term, CSAT measures provide insight on customers’ overall happiness with their experiences, and allow CX leaders to address issues if scores begin to fall. With its final, open-ended question, the survey allows customers to give voice to thoughts or concerns in their own words. By empowering customers to provide unstructured feedback, the company lets customers know that their experiences matter. The utility can build a rich repository of customer insights that it can mine for a deeper understanding of its customer base. Improving customer communications While improving the customer experience is new territory for some utilities, those that have taken the lead are achieving solid returns. In fact, research by the Aberdeen Group revealed that power and utility companies with best-in-class CX programs saw remarkable results. The top 20 percent of CX programs studied attained: • 51 percent higher customer retention rates • 23 percent increase in customer profit margins, year-over-year • 24 percent improvement in response times to customer needs, year-over-year Aberdeen also found that utilities with best-in-class CX also achieved 44 percent greater growth in annual company revenues, year-over-year, when compared to peers with less robust programs. Increasing emphasis on customer experience offers clear benefits for utilities. Today’s utilities that want to enhance customer communications can achieve tangible wins by advancing their CX survey practices. Moving to a technology-based feedback collection process and designing a well-rounded survey gives customers a voice, provides deeper insights and can form the foundation for a CX program that can yield measurable results. CHIP JAMES is president of eTouchPoint, a CX platform provider to Fortune 500 leaders. A CX industry veteran, James has been a leading CX advocate through speaking engagements, client consulting, and development of industry best practices.
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