by Penni McLean-Conner
Utilities send out a lot of customer correspondence. In fact, in a review of customer touch points at NSTAR, I was surprised to learn that correspondence was our second most common means of communicating with our customers, just ahead of the call center. Our most prevalent customer touch point is, of course, the bill.
Indeed, utilities send out a variety of letters and correspondence to customers. Utility CIS systems are often well stocked with canned letters ready to mail to customers on topics like high bills, estimated bills, meter tests, status of work requests and many more. At NSTAR, our CIS had more than 400 letters for customer service reps to choose from. Combine these letters with credit notices and letters mailed directly from various departments like engineering, construction, claims or marketing, and the number of contacts grows quickly.
Letters, like telephony systems and utility bills, convey an image of your company to your customers. According to “The Business Writer’s Handbook,” “Many companies spend millions of dollars to create a favorable public image. A letter to a customer that sounds impersonal and unfriendly can quickly tarnish that image, but a thoughtful letter that communicates sincerity can greatly enhance it.”
Have you looked closely at the letters you are sending? As we reviewed NSTAR’s many letters, we discovered that our customer correspondence did not always leave the customer with a positive impression of NSTAR. In fact, as we analyzed our correspondence, we found that many letters did not make the grade.
Letter basics-best practices
Establishing guidelines for corres-pondence to ensure that customer letters are friendly and have a standard look and feel is a best practice for company correspondence. Here are some examples of basic letter guidelines from “The Business Writer’s Handbook”:
- Company letterhead appears on all correspondence
- Company mission appears on correspondence where appropriate
- Spelling, punctuation and grammar are correct
- Signature and contact information are provided
- Envelopes are typed and carry the logo with a return address
- Letter is centered vertically and horizontally
- Letter is personalized and custom-ized where possible
Customer correspondence should leave the customer with a positive impression of your company. After NSTAR’s review of the 400-plus letters in its CIS, more than 80 percent were deleted.
Over time, the number of canned letters in a CIS system can build up. Establish a regular review process to screen new system letters to ensure they meet the correspondence guidelines, and review letters already on the system to determine if they’re still needed.
After our review of the 400-plus letters in NSTAR’s CIS, more than 80 percent were deleted. We found that many letters in our system were old and outdated and others were duplicative, especially common letters used for both gas and electric issues. By cleaning up our system, we were able to simplify the training for CSRs. More importantly, we reduced the probability of sending a customer an incorrect letter or a letter containing incorrect information.
Many companies will have professionals in corporate communicat-ions review system letters to ensure they convey a consistent look and language.
Most utility letters are system generated, but in a letter review you may also find that letters are being sent to customers from many departments around the company-and that the quality control associated with these letters is often less than for “system” letters. To enhance letter quality, offer training on how to compose professional correspondence. The training curriculum can reinforce correspondence guidelines and help develop the skills needed to appropriately compose more delicate letters, like those sent in response to an escalated complaint.
Today, there are many IT tools to aid in ensuring quality customer correspondence. Web-based tools maintain an inventory of pre-canned responses that CSRs can use. Newer CIS systems include more robust correspondence management tools that allow the CSR to customize letters, making them more personal.
To maintain and enhance customer satisfaction, it is important that utilities leverage every customer touch point to make sure their customers have a good experience. Much work is devoted to enhancing bills and telephony systems. Letters, though, can often be overlooked. Establishing correspondence guidelines and regular review processes will go a long way toward ensuring that this important customer touch point also conveys excellence.
Penni McLean-Conner is the vice president of customer care at NSTAR, Massachusetts’ largest investor-owned electric and gas utility. McLean-Conner, a registered professional engineer, serves on several industry boards of directors, including the CIS Conference, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Her first book, “Customer Service: Utility Style,” has been published by PennWell Books.