Most electric service companies tend to think that customer loyalty happens when you go above and beyond. However a survey that includes electric utilities has revealed that customer satisfaction peaks when their needs are met and a chore gets crossed off their list of to-dos.
Customers are more likely to view a customer service interaction as negative, frustrating or unsuccessful when they have to deal with a customer service representative, according to the survey.
“This is because they’re usually in a bad state to deal with, and most customer service interactions make this worse rather than better,” said Matt Dixon of the Corporate Executive Board Co., which conducted the 3-year survey of about 35 electric, gas and water utilities and how they conduct the customer service arms of their companies.
“The punchline from the research is while most companies think they don’t get customer loyalty without going above and beyond, but what we hear from customers is their satisfaction peaks out when their expectations are met,” Dixon said.
So what are those expectations? The survey left it up to the customers to spell out what their expectations and needs were.
“The things we know that make customers angrier when they get off the phone are when they have to call back, when they have to be transferred, having to repeat information about their problem or their account number, being dealt with in a very generic way,” he said.
In the end, the role of customer service is not to delight the customer, but to reduce the amount of effort required in a customer service interaction, he said.
“It matters less where the service is coming from. It matters more how the service is effectively dealing with the problem at hand,” he said.
If customers are able to get satisfaction without ever needing to get on the phone with a customer service representative, the survey holds that this is all the better for both the customer as well as the utility.
“They want to go to the web first. They tell us they’d prefer to go to the web, get the information and not have to call at all,” he said.
One particular challenge utilities face is trying to meet or beat the level of customer service already offered by everyone else. A customer might reason that if they can settle a dispute on their checking account with online banking, or easily reserve a movie not even out on DVD yet using Netflix.com, then why is it still so difficult for them to make a change to their utility account?
They don’t stop to discriminate between the service offered by one company not in the electricity market and another company that is selling them electricity.
“Companies across the industry are coming to realize that their customers are everyone else’s customers. If they have a really easy to use, relevant banking web site, they might come to ask why they can’t get the same from their electric utility,” said Lauren Pragoff, a research consultant with the Corporate Executive Board.
This is called the “self-service challenge.” The challenge is met when easily resolvable issues can be, well, easily resolved – without the need to make things more complicated than they have to be.
Of course, not everything can be so easily streamlined. Electric utilities have to deal with service outages that may not be easy to pin down, or be quick to resolve.
“There is an uncertain nature of things like outages. Sometimes the company has no idea what to tell the customer,” Pragoff said.
Even when dealing with an uncertain event such as a blackout, there are some specific dos and do-not-dos that were revealed in the survey. For one, it’s important to keep the tone of the conversation positive.
“Instead of saying I can’t tell you right now when the power will be back on, you can say I will send you a message when we know when the power will be back on. Using positive language could be a good opportunity,” she said.
Saying things like, “We can’t,” “We won’t,” “That’s not our policy,” or “We don’t know,” are infuriating to customers who are already worried and inconvenienced by both the blackout itself and potentially long waiting times for call center service as well, Dixon said.
Bill Clayton, vice president of customer care operation for Reliant Energy (an NRG Energy company), agreed with the Corporate Executive Board finding that not every customer needs to be wowed.
However, Clayton said the deregulated market in Texas makes pleasing the consumer an important aspect of doing business. In this market, the transmission distribution service providers are responsible for anything in the field that breaks or drives an outage.
Reliant Energy approaches customer service by profiling customer personality types and training customer service workers to recognize these personality types.
“One type is called a “˜Controller.’ They want to take control over their issue. They call in and have a problem and try to tell you how to fix it,” Clayton said.
There is a way to deal with each personality type, and a way not to, he said. Also, the approach that works with one type may not satisfy another.
While the Controller will appreciate a speedy, no-nonsense resolution to his or her problem, an Entertainer (another customer personality type) will appreciate a more personal interaction with the representative.
“In this day and age, what has fundamentally changed in customers is their expectation. They want more information sooner than later, and they don’t want to be surprised,” he said. “We need to be more proactive with our notifications, he said. Whether it’s a planned outage, or a non-planned one. If you’re proactive, you can get info out there more quickly, and that could mitigate calls going into a call center.”
Clayton said Reliant ranks its customer service effectiveness using a customer effort score. This statistic is meant to measure how hard or how easy it is for a given customer to have his or her problem solved – in terms of total time spent, number of transfers, wait times, etc.
“It comes down to how much effort they have to exert to get their problem solved. What’s more important is how do they feel during that interaction. You can’t package or bottle electricity, so how do you take this commodity and turn it into something more than that? With the physical interactions you have with your customers,” he said.
One step Reliant has taken to take some of the pain out of these interactions is called first contact resolution. This means making sure that, where possible, the first call customers have to make is also the last call they have to make.
“What we do is we look at the customer account. We try to anticipate in our routing system why the customer called. There are predictive indicators that can tell us who the best available agent is. That mitigates transfers – it’s not perfect every time, but it does help us from a first contact resolution standpoint,” he said.
Clayton also agreed with Dixon that customers resent being treated in a generic fashion. They want to be treated as human beings, first and foremost.
“They are unique individuals, and they don’t want to talk to a robot. What’s great about our market is that if customers get treated this way, they can go somewhere else,” he said.
There is also the concept of average handle time. This is a measure of the total amount of time a customer has to spend on the phone. Clayton cautioned against the misconception that only the time spent talking to a customer service representative matters. A company has to consider the full amount of time a customer has spent on the phone.
“Average handle time is made up of talk time, hold time and after call work. If you ask any call center director, they know their own AHT. They can spit out those statistics,” he said.
However, the fact that these statistics are kept and known does not mean that the purpose of them is to keep the handle times low, he said.
“We have seen an increase in our AHT. Our calls are longer because we’re talking to our customers about our products, but a lot of calls have been deflected to the web and to the interactive voice response. So what is left over is the more complicated problems such as high bill complaints, inadvertent switches and so on,” he said.
Another important step in meeting customers’ most basic needs is the post-call survey, which is a follow-up call placed after the problem is solved.
“We ask them how much effort they had to expend to take care of their problem. The reason why we’re doing that goes back to the personality-based training. It helps us better understand the gaps within our own business processes, and how we can better coach our agents,” he said.