Creating Cracker Jack Moments for Utility Customers

By Penni McLean-Conner, Northeast Utilities

Chip Bell’s latest book, “The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service” published by Simple Truths in 2013, provides thought-provoking principles supported with stories.

In it, he describes the Cracker Jack Principle: Service with surprise is like a box of Cracker Jack. It was not the cool box or the caramelized popcorn we craved–it was the free prize inside. While the prize had little economic value, its emotional value was priceless. Surprise breaks the monotony of hohum, communicates a caring attitude, and fosters an infectious spirit that customers cannot wait to narrate to others.

Cracker Jack moments can be created in two ways. They can be designed into the customer experience. Cracker Jack moments also can be created by employees’ operating in a culture that supports this type of behavior. This series of articles on Cracker Jack moments explores the framework for providing customers with Cracker Jack moments and examines case studies of organizations that are delivering them.

Cracker Jack Moments by Design

Companies also can build Cracker Jack moments into the design of their customer experience. Let’s explore an example that is getting a lot of attention in the utility industry: the customer outage process.

By design for the past 100 years, utilities have relied on customers’ calling them to report outages and to share outage information with those customers. Data suggests that some 20 percent of customers affected by an outage call to report the outage. This means that 80 percent of customers receive no information about the outage.

Customer satisfaction research indicates that customers want information about their outages and prefer to receive that information from their utilities. With the predominate model being utilities’ responding only to those customers who call in, most customers are left in the dark about their outages.

Innovative utilities are changing the model of outage reporting. They are moving to proactive outreach to all customers affected by outages. They are surprising their customers with outage information, and the result is higher customer satisfaction.

The challenge with Cracker Jack moments by design, though, is that they can become the customers’ expectation. Savvy customer service leaders recognize this issue and address it by planning ongoing enhancements. In the case of outage alerts, utilities have enhancements in their outage communication blueprints, including: updating customers through the channels of their choice, enhancing the accuracy of the estimated time of restoration (ETR) and providing more detailed outage information such as causes and locations.

Cracker Jack Culture

In Bell’s book, he also describes cultures that encourage Cracker Jack moments. He notes that Zappos, renowned for its customer service, has as its core value “Create Fun and A Little Weirdness.”

Companies with cultures that support Cracker Jack moments have some common best practices: a common mission, a core value of customer service and engaged employees.

Common mission. Successful companies are guided by their mission statements, which are more though than just the statements. Successful organizations ensure their employees understand and share their missions. These organizations link their initiatives, projects and actions to the missions. They communicate to all employees about their roles in achieving the missions.

Core values. Creating an environment that supports and empowers employees to deliver Cracker Jack moments requires core values that employees understand. These core values include the delivery of superior customer service, the expectation to make things right with customers and the latitude to be creative.

Engaged employees. Engaged employees understand their roles and the impacts of their work on their companies. Combine that understanding with a common mission and core values, and employees are likely to develop on the fly ways to deliver Cracker Jack moments to customers.

Bell notes that a Cracker Jack moment can “break the monotony of hohum, communicates a caring attitude, and fosters an infectious spirit that customers cannot wait to narrate to others.”

Within the next few columns, I will explore how utilities are creating Cracker Jack moments by design and culture. My hope is that you will gain some ideas to spark Cracker Jack moments for your customers.

Penni McLean-Conner is the chief customer offcer at Northeast Utilities, the largest energy delivery company in New England. A registered professional engineer, McLean-Conner is active in the utility industry, serving on several boards of directors including CS Week and the American Council for an Energy Effcient Economy. Her latest book, “Energy Effciency: Principles and Practices,” is available at www. Reach her at penelope.

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