A Utility’s Social Media Journey to Customer Connectivity

By Dustin Johnson and Candice Pedersen, PwC

As consumers flock to social media to connect and interact with businesses, customer centricity has never been more essential–or immediate. For utilities, understanding the benefits of social media and building an engaging presence has become a business imperative.

Yet doing so can be a challenge for utilities, which sometimes have been slow to adopt new technologies. One Fortune 500 utility knew it needed to create and build a social media strategy to interact with existing customers and reach new ones in unregulated markets, yet it needed help to understand the platform, create an effective strategy and build an engaging presence.

The need was clear. Employees often referred to customers as “meters,” and externally the utility had a reputation as a bureaucratic monolith. Establishing a more modern view of customers and creating a plan to engage consumers through social media would demand a customer-centric strategy and road map that outlines the right organizational design, processes, tools and enabling technologies. The company also needed help integrating the work force of a smaller company it recently acquired, one whose work force had experience connecting with and engaging customers through social networking.

The utility selected PwC to help it modernize its culture and create a plan to build an engaging and proactive social presence. The goal would be to assess current social media practices in the utilities industry and develop an integrated social media plan that would help it build a reputation as an industry innovator that prioritizes customers’ needs.

Starting the Conversation on Social Strategy

PwC’s team of social media specialists worked with stakeholders from the company’s digital team, which had primary ownership of the social media governance, to collaboratively develop a social media strategy. The first step was to perform an environmental assessment of the utility’s social engagement practices and initiatives from an internal perspective and from the viewpoint of its customers.

This inside-out analysis comprised more than 40 interviews with stakeholders across the enterprise, including key personnel from marketing and corporate communications, media relations, customer service, human resources, community affairs and regional divisions. PwC tailored questions to identify critical challenges and opportunities for innovation and improvement.

The conversations revealed broad opinions of social media, ranging from outright skepticism to high enthusiasm. Many employees preferred traditional methods of communication. Some considered social media a distraction; others said its primary value lies in emergency communications and response efforts.

For many, the business value of social media was uncertain because they saw no clear link between social media and top-line revenue. Given the well-known risks and challenges associated with social media, they did not recognize the potential value of an integrated social media and customer engagement strategy.

PwC also conducted a comprehensive analysis of social media channels employed by the utility company, along with a thorough channel analysis of industry contemporaries and peers in adjacent regulated industries. To demonstrate leading practices across sectors, we also compared the performance of major financial institutions, telecommunications providers and technology and innovation conglomerates with high-performing social media programs.

Mapping Milestones on the Social Journey

The PwC team then ranked the utility’s social media performance against a select set of industry peers and leading practitioners using a five-stage Social Engagement Journey method. The methodology enables mapping of a company’s social media engagement progress as it moves from experimentation to a state in which social networking is embedded into the corporate DNA. The stages are:

Stage 1: Traditional. Traditional command-and-control business operations employ one-way communication to drive business outcomes.

Stage 2: Experimental. The company begins to dabble in social engagement, but the social media plan is not aligned with business operations and objectives. Fractured tools, siloed efforts and disparate approaches are common.

Stage 3: Operational. Social engagement becomes more embedded in business operations. Internal training, channel alignment and campaign integration start to deliver tangible results.

Stage 4: Measurable. Social engagement drives business results, with systems and tools fully optimized to support confident and competent employees and to more fully leverage online relationships.

Stage 5: Fully engaged. Social engagement among customers and employees (as well as internally among the company’s employees) occurs as a standard business process. In other words, social networking has become a part of the organization’s DNA.

Using this approach, PwC determined that the utility was in the early stages of the journey. Although it had begun to experiment with social engagement, participation was disconnected from business operations. Business units employed different tools and rules for engagement with no explicit management toward goals. What’s more, the limited success metrics captured by the utility focused on activities rather than impact.

PwC organized the insights from the environmental analysis into three core themes: customer, brand and culture. This categorization would provide a framework to help create an engaging brand story and become more customer-centric by transforming its social media operations to interact with customers using the right platforms, times and devices.

These initiatives could not achieve their full potential without an evolution in the utility’s existing risk-averse and conservative organizational culture. A cultural transformation was necessary to empower and encourage employees to engage with customers. The utility also knew that a more modern organizational culture is essential to drive employee collaboration, recruitment and retention of top talent and long-term innovation.

A Custom Strategy for Engagement

Working with the utility’s digital stakeholders, the team of social media specialists developed a comprehensive social media strategy and road map based on these findings.

The first step was a two-day brainstorming workshop with business leaders from across the enterprise to develop an impact-focused social media strategy tied to the company’s overall objectives and mission. The tone of the workshop was informal and highly collaborative: Participants were encouraged to “leave their badges at the door” and think creatively across titles and business units.

In an industry in which siloed operations are a norm, the workshop provided most attendees the first opportunity to collaborate across functions. The team found that many had numerous useful ideas to digitally advance the brand but previously had no opportunity to share them. The creation of a safe environment in which no idea is a bad idea enabled participants to collaborate freely and enthusiastically brainstorm.

Working together, they identified four business objectives for the social media strategy: Change brand perception, deliver exceptional customer service, increase product and service adoption, and create a culture of collaboration and innovation. The workshop participants also identified dozens of social media goals, functional strategies to achieve goals, and actionable social media tactics.

After the workshop, PwC worked with a handful of key stakeholders to develop an 18-month social media “plan on a page” based on the four key objectives identified in the collaborative session. Using a narrowing exercise, the team prioritized the utility’s top five social media goals, five strategies that support the goals and 23 tactics aligned to the strategies. Each tactic connected with an individual owner and a set of milestones. In addition, the team drafted a charter for each strategy, defining success dependencies and the desired outcome for each tactic.

PwC also provided a social media presence framework and a governance model. The framework identified the most advantageous social platforms: one for overall branding and another as a platform to deliver immediate information related to emergencies and power outages. Because many of the utility’s rural customers use smartphones to access social networking sites, the team stressed the importance of mobile platforms.

The governance model was fairly prescriptive to help provide clarity around roles and responsibilities and create accountability for internal social media practitioners. The team also helped the utility determine and consolidate ownership of the social media properties. Primary responsibilities fell to the digital team, customer service and marketing. A broader set of workers–including employees from the customer service, marketing, public relations and media relations teams–will use the social tools to interact with customers. The plan also enables certain other employees with solid social media experience to post updates. For instance, in the event of a power outage, certain power restoration workers will be authorized to post updates from the field.

The governance model also offered relevant employees training to help them engage on social platforms, which will reduce risk for the utility and help drive improved customer satisfaction and brand perception. In addition, PwC provided social media crisis communication guidance and templates that will support the utility’s alignment of social media efforts with the current crisis-management plan to provide a quality customer experience during emergencies.

The collaborative strategy and road map will help the utility create and implement a customized, up-to-date social media plan during the next 18 months. PwC is documenting, distributing and centralizing social engagement tips and best practices; It also is helping implement the cross-functional social governance structure. Social media training will be provided to more teams as a way to continue expanding employee capabilities.

The utility aims to leverage its social media strategy to increase efficiencies and boost customer satisfaction. It is on its way to transforming its culture from a “meter” mindset to a business that effectively interacts with customers and engages future customers via social media. Doing so will be essential to becoming a utility of the customer-centric future.

Dustin Johnson is managing director of PwC’s Digital Change and Social Business practice. He focuses on business strategy, operations and technology.

Candice Pedersen is manager of PwC’s Digital Change & Social Business practice. She leads teams and organizations through the process of transforming customer experience and brand engagement by activating and embedding customer voice in every aspect of the business.

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