Q&A with Entergy’s Ed Melendreras, Vice President, Sales & Marketing
by Jim Campbell
Entergy Corporation made international headlines during the massive recovery efforts after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana in 2005. In recent years, Entergy has also explored innovative ways to better understand the customer experience and fended off threats of cogeneration to its major industrial customer base along the Gulf Coast.
Ed Melendreras, vice president, sales and marketing, at Entergy Corporation. Melendreras has been with the company for 29 years. Click here to enlarge image
Ed Melendreras, vice president of sales and marketing at Entergy, has been with the company for 29 years. He recently reflected on the lessons his company has learned and how Entergy is improving by focusing on the “voice” of the customer.
What sorts of challenges did Entergy face after the unprecedented hurricane damage of 2005 and what is the current situation in New Orleans?
I think New Orleans is rebounding very nicely, not that we still don’t have our challenges. But I think the city is headed in the right direction and recovery is well on its way. I see New Orleans getting healthier as a community and becoming a viable place to do business.
As it relates to Entergy and New Orleans, to say [the hurricane devastation] was unprecedented is a huge understatement. I don’t think any other utility has really been faced with what we faced right after Katrina, particularly in the New Orleans areas, both from a gas distribution and electric utility perspective. We certainly went through hardships, all the way from reliability to meter reading issues to billing, the essential blocking and tackling operations of a utility.
To make things more difficult we [Entergy’s New Orleans subsidiary] were operating under bankruptcy, so those challenges were immense. The good story now is that Entergy New Orleans has rebounded, much as the city has.
As of the middle of last year, Entergy New Orleans came out of bankruptcy. Obviously, it took a lot of hard work and effort on the part of our employees, the city council who are our regulators, our senior management, the state and the federal governments and of course our customers, because there weren’t many left after the hurricane.
We’re bullish on New Orleans. The number of customers coming back really has been very surprising to a lot of folks. In fact, because of the rate of repopulation, in December of last year we were able to give our customers a base rate credit of 6 percent. It’s becoming a more positive story every day.
Besides New Orleans, Entergy has six major geographic P&L operating companies divided among the states it serves. How does your team keep a consistent Entergy message and customer service focus over this diverse territory?
It can be interesting and challenging at times. I’ve been VP of sales and marketing for 18 months now and one focus has been trying to improve how we align our marketing, customer service and communications across all of our territory.
We’ve formed a customer strategy lead team that meets every other month within Entergy, with the goal of improving the overall customer experience. The group includes representatives from the communications and marketing departments, the environmental group, customer service representatives from the operating companies, and other key support departments. The meetings allow us to utilize resources more effectively and exchange best practices. It certainly makes dynamic and interesting conversations happen among our people and we’re finding that there are more commonalities among the various groups than many people thought.
The top executives at the operating companies are very supportive of the process because we are able to focus on what they need.
How do you measure and track the Entergy customer experience?
Entergy measures the Voice of the Customer. We talk with customers every month through surveys and focus groups.
Customer satisfaction is one aspect of that, but recently we started transaction surveys where we contact a customer who has had an interaction with us in the previous week and we ask him or her about the experience from start to finish. And our questions aren’t just about an experience with the phone center. We ask about their experiences from service initiation to construction work to closeout. This helps us uncover potential gaps in customer service and the customer experience.
Based on the results of the study, we follow up with an aggressive continuous improvement program that targets all the involved customer processes and services. This transaction study has given us the opportunity to address issues more quickly than before.
While we also value other classic sales metrics, this Voice of the Customer is giving us useful information about how we’re doing.
How is technology playing a role in the customer experience?
Web enhancement is being viewed as a big growth channel for Entergy. While we are not a leader in web-based services, we are working to catch up in a hurry and we’re leveraging the experience of others, both utilities and other businesses, in our effort to do so.
What’s been interesting is that, while you always think you know what customers want, you may not really. We conducted focus groups to get tuned-in to customers’ desires for web services and some of the results surprised us. The number one item customers really wanted to know was the status of outages, so outage management notification is now on-line, along with the bill presentment and payment options.
We are using other technology systems to develop and manage our channel strategy. We do lots of business through our phone centers and we have the most advanced technology at work in the five phone centers that serve our operating companies.
We also have the Entergy Business Center, a phone center that is specifically for our large managed-account customers. They work with our award-winning Entergy account management team to provide a high level of value, service and reliability.
We are exploring expanded e-mail, texting and outbound calling capabilities as additional ways to incorporate the voice of the customer. It’s very important that we expand channels for two-way communications with our customers.
How will advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and smart grid technologies affect energy marketing and customer service at Entergy?
Entergy is rolling out AMI pilot programs in Baton Rouge in an operational pilot and an energy efficiency pilot that include demand response and time-of-use programs with in-house devices.
There’s a lot out there about AMI and smart grid but it’s not a mature technology yet so we are engaged in a disciplined approach for its implementation. We believe there is a future for AMI and the smart grid as enablers of greater customer experience, but some of the technology still needs development.
We’re a member of the Customer Care Research Consortium of 14 large U.S. utilities and we’ve recently completed a project called “A Day in the Life of a Future Customer,” where we looked out to 2015 and asked what the customer experience will look like then. Smart grid and web-based communications will be a big enabler of that vision, and it will definitely require utilities to change their business models and the way we interact with our customers. Customers will have more control over their experience with much more information and more transparency.
Utilities need to be engaged enablers of this change. It will be a challenging and complex world where you have a merging of environmental issues, advanced technology, rising energy costs and rising customer expectations in the near future.
This is an exciting time and one that will change utilities’ business models.
How do you see the customer experience evolving?
Many times, the only experience customers have today with the utility is when they get the bill, which for the most part they don’t understand. Entergy is trying to show customers the value they get for their money. It’s more than just a bill–energy consumption is a way of life.
A new ad campaign we’re running shows a picture of a house and the comforts and conveniences you get for only $5 per day. The goal of the advertising is to tie the bill to what people receive from it. For the most part, the utility industry has not done a good job of tying that whole value proposition together, for people to value what utilities provide.
As technology begins to evolve so that they have more control, they’ll value it more than just saying, “Gee, I just got an electricity bill.”
We realize as an electric utility, we’re the only game in town but we want customers to feel they do business with us because they want to, not because they have to. We keep that in front of ourselves as the way we conduct business.
Jim Campbell has been providing technology solutions to leading companies for more than 25 years. He is currently a utility industry account executive, based in Dallas, for the SAS Institute, Inc. Contact him at email@example.com.