by Doug Cox, GMC Software Technology
Changing governmental policies and regulations that threaten to reduce the supply of raw materials likely will increase costs for many energy providers, and this will continue to impact rates to consumers. It might be too easy for consumers to blame the messenger when utilities might be finding fewer sources of power and increasing competition to secure sufficient, long-term supplies.
Effective customer communications can help assure customers that energy providers remain committed to offering reliable power at the lowest rate possible. Customer communications also can respond to public concerns–particularly during extreme weather–and give consumers tips to reduce their energy usage and keep their own costs manageable. Reaching out to hundreds of thousands or even millions of customers, however, can be challenging.
Developing a Communications Strategy
Developing effective communications with customers requires planning. To begin, assess what your organization can do in-house and what might be done better and more economically by outside suppliers. Review every facet of your in-house communications capabilities. Then, consider how you might reconfigure them to optimize operations and improve the finished products.
Although your company is the most knowledgeable source about its rates, policies, communication strategies and the key messaging for its customers, printing and fulfilling these communications might not be a core capability for energy providers. For example, your business needs marketing and customer service reps who can explain rates and programs clearly, but building and staffing a print production center diverts funds from your primary operations. Outsourcing the print and distribution function to a third-party supplier is useful and cost-effective for many utilities. Delegating this job to an external business partner, however, might mean giving up some control.
Also consider using new media, or popular electronic communication channels, to reduce printing and postage costs. Many customers prefer receiving invoices and announcements electronically. Because of the public’s embracing of devices such as smart phones, customers no longer need computer access to receive email or visit your website. In addition, promoting these media channels can help shift customers to electronic billing and payment systems.
The media channels you deploy will help define the specific communications vehicles you decide to use. Transpromotional, or “transpromo,” materials combine transactional communications such as invoices and statements with marketing messages and other information. Transpromo offers benefits that work together to reduce costs and improve the customer experience:
- Customers open and read monthly bills, providing a regular opportunity to communicate with customers.
- Combining marketing with monthly statements–making a message an integral part of statements–can cut the cost of developing and mailing separate materials.
- Transpromo materials allow personalized communications drawing upon information such as a customer’s energy use or location in an urban or rural area. Personalized communications show you know your customers and understand their needs and preferences.
Printed invoices or inserts, website pages and emails sent to computers, mobile phones or both must be compatible with the technology being used. The message format must brand and identify your organization, but it also must be flexible enough to work on the printed page, your website and in email. Software is available that enables even people without information technology training to develop communication vehicles that can be published or broadcast through various media channels. You might find that combining the knowledge and expertise of your in-house staff with the knowledge and expertise of your external print, mail and other suppliers will take advantage of the best elements of each. Developing your message in-house and outsourcing its production and fulfillment allows you to keep effective control over your communications without investing in expensive capabilities that will drive up costs for your organization.
Putting it Together
You likely will encounter some of the most common issues:
- Gathering quality data. Customer information can be created and stored in data silos across your organization, particularly if your business operates over a large geographic region. Some utilities have disparate legacy systems that resulted from mergers and acquisitions. Be sure your communications solution can access and assimilate data from these sources.
- Integrating delivery channels. Once you’ve identified and collected the data required for your program, you must be able to coordinate and integrate it across a range of media output channels. For example, are your customer invoices relevant to each customer’s concerns and situation? Will they be delivered in the customer’s preferred channel? Do they take advantage of feedback obtained through channels such as email or your customer service call center?
- Managing processes and content. Managing the process, users, roles and interfaces and updating methods of communications channels can seem daunting. User roles and permissions should be honored anywhere in your system. In addition, the ability to manage content, independent of the documents and channels that receive them, is crucial. Your communications strategy should include these management capabilities or your organization could be overwhelmed with details of process and content complexities.
A Collaborative Effort Makes a Difference
Although outsourcing segments of your customer communications system can ensure quality and cost-efficiency, when you send any task outside your organization, you risk losing the control, responsiveness and relevance of your documents and messages. This would defeat the purpose of your program, which is to develop closer and more trusting relationships with consumers.
Information sent to your customers must represent your company in culture and tone and present your company and policies in ways that are useful to customers.
Having the ability to do agile billing allows you to maintain flexibility and control of documents and enjoy the cost benefits of outsourcing printing and fulfillment. A collaborative effort between your organization and third-party suppliers makes the best use of everyone’s skill and expertise.
Collaboration also might serve as a guiding principle with customers. If consumers see increasing rates on their monthly bills, energy providers might be served best by reminding customers that:
- Utilities also face rising costs because of events beyond their control;
- Utilities are taking steps to keep rates at a minimum; and
- Consumers can reduce their energy use by following certain tips.
Regular, relevant customer communications delivered through appropriate channels can help create collaborative, cooperative relationships between energy providers and the people they serve.
Doug Cox is North American general manager for GMC Software Technology, a provider of document output for customer communication management. Reach him at email@example.com.