Customers are complex, but they like simple

by Teresa Hansen

My last commentary in Electric Light & Power was about customers and customer engagement; I therefore planned to write about something else in this issue. But, between the feedback Associate Editor Jennifer Van Burkleo and I received while preparing the Customers Speak Up roundtable article and my daughter’s recent experience with electricity providers when she relocated to Texas, I decided to once again discuss electric utilities and their customers.

If you read my commentary in the May-June issue, you might recall that I wrote about the need for utilities to learn how to better communicate with their customers. I also included information about the digital revolution and how different customer demographic groups want to communicate with their electricity providers through different channels. After reading the responses to the short survey Jennifer and I conducted with residential customers of varying ages living in different parts of the country and of different socio-economic groups, I wonder if much of what I wrote in that commentary is irrelevant.

When you read the Customers Speak Up article that begins on page 18, you’ll learn that many of the individuals we surveyed don’t know how much they pay per kilowatt-hour, they seldom communicate with their utilities and they’re OK with that. Most aren’t interested in hearing from their utility unless they are without electricity. When asked if they wanted more communication with their utility, all responses were similar: an email or text message notification about the cause of a power outage and an estimate on when the electricity will be back on would be nice. Some, but not all, respondents said they also would like usage information or alerts on power shortages.

While our survey was far from scientific, it reflects the opinions of most residential utility customers. As long as the lights are on, they don’t want to converse with their electricity provider. So, if electricity providers want to engage more with customers, they’ll first need to convince customers that more engagement will benefit them.

Another thing I’ve learned about electricity providers in the past few weeks is that they over-complicate some things. This opinion comes from my experience with trying to help my daughter select an electricity provider when she moved to Texas earlier this summer. I was excited when I Iearned that she was moving to an area with retail competition. Because I consider myself to be in the know when it comes to retail competition, I was eager to help her select the right provider. I never imagined that selecting an electricity provider would be so daunting. In fact, just trying to determine which companies service her city was difficult. I’m not sure we ever uncovered them all. We did, however, identify enough to make us feel like we had ample choices. Most of the providers we considered had several options or plans from which to choose. They offered various lengths of contracts, different types of billing and payment methods, different deposit amounts, green vs. conventional power and, of course, different rates. It didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to wane. My daughter found it difficult to reach a human who could explain the various choices or offer suggestions on which plan might best fit her lifestyle and needs. I expected these electricity providers to have available someone similar to my cell phone carrier’s customer service representative; someone who could recommend the plan for her. I can’t say for sure that some of the providers don’t have a person like that, but I can say for sure she didn’t speak to anyone who fit that bill. In the end, I recommended that she “just chose one.”

The experience left me wondering how individuals who are not familiar with the electricity industry and have little interest in it choose a provider. I recommend that electricity providers in Texas take another look at their websites and customer service strategies related to customer choice.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I think electricity providers are clueless or unconcerned when it comes to customers. Many, like Unitil, which you can read about in the artilce “Customer Service-Serving Customers Better by Appreciating Employess” on page 36, are working hard to keep customers satisfied and offer them what they want. You’ll find several articles in this issue covering customer service and communications. Electric utilities are working hard to improve in both areas and they are making headway, but as our simple survey and my customer experience reveal, they have a long way to go. I hope Electric Light & Power magazine can help them get there.

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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