Utility leaders address greatest customer service myths

by Penni McLean-Conner, Northeast Utilities

Time has a way of making what is true today a myth tomorrow. At CS Week 2012 in Dallas, Chief Customer Officer Brenda Jackson of Oncor, Austin Energy Deputy General Manager Kerry Overton and I led a panel discussion on customer service myths.

Customers Just Want Someone to Listen to Their Complaints: Myth or Fact?
The first potential myth: Customers want someone to listen to their complaints. Jackson said utility call centers staff to offer customers live voices and train customer service representatives (CSRs) to handle irate customers. Utilities also have sufficient trained staff positioned to respond to customers’ complaints. But does this make them feel better?

Customer service leaders in the audience said customers are not satisfied with someone to vent to; they need answers.

Jackson agreed and declared the myth busted. Customers want solutions and answers. Customers want utility representatives to listen to their concerns, design solutions and ensure those solutions are implemented completely.

One Size Fits All for Utility Customer Service: Myth or Fact?
Standardized processes lead to lower costs, and a carefully designed process delivered consistently can maintain and improve customer satisfaction, Overton said.

Audience members said if one size fits all, then the computer could handle all requests, which it cannot. Also, many sizes fit multiple requests, which contradicts total standardization. There is benefit to handling requests in a standard way.

This myth is busted. Overton suggested an overall customer service approach should support customization while leveraging standardization in systems and processes.

He said traditional utilities rely on segmenting customers into three categories: residential, commercial and industrial. Savvy utilities recognize there are many customer segments. In residential, there might be 20 to 100 customer segments.

Progressive utilities are providing products and services packaged to these segments. To customers, the service appears customized although it’s built from standardized systems and processes. This combination, Overton said, provides the best result: lowering delivery costs by using standard tools and processes while delivering in customized packaging, which increases customers’ satisfaction with the service.

Adding Employees Improves Customer Service: Myth or Fact?
When a utility faces long customer wait times in its call center, the quick solution is to add employees. This lets customers reach live people. This type of response is played out in all areas of utility customer service.

Audience participants said adding employees alone does not improve customer service and utilities tried adding employees quickly to address call center service issues, but the result was years of high employee turnover and increased management time and attention to performance issues.

This myth is busted. Adding employees might take the edge off a situation in the short run, but it can be costly long term. If the added employees are not good fits for the job, the result is increased turnover and a less than engaged work force.

A better solution is adding the right employees. Customer service leaders work closely with human resources departments to ensure position descriptions and qualifications align with business needs. Further, customer service leaders must understand and ensure candidate screening processes are effective in selecting the right employees for jobs. Line management must create an engaged work force by providing timely communication and coaching to employee teams.

Many truisms become myths. During the past 25 years in utility customer service, leaders have seen a steady migration of customers who demand live voice answer service to their demands of more self-service options via more channels. Utility leaders are wise to question practices to ensure service remains relevant and valued by customers.

Penni McLean-Conner is the chief customer officer 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 Efficient Economy. Her latest book, “Energy Efficiency: Principles and Practices,” is available at http://pennwellbooks.com. Reach her at penelope.conner@nu.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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