customer service: utility style offer customers what they need

Penni McLean-Conner
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Last December, I received an unusual card. At first glance I thought it was blank, but upon closer inspection I discovered that it was a braille holiday card from Steven Rothstein, president of the Perkins School for the Blind.

Rothstein sent this card to show his appreciation for NSTAR’s launch of a billing option for the visually impaired, which includes a braille bill and large print bill. A press conference announcing these billing options was hosted by the Perkins School of the Blind, whose alumni include Helen Keller.

“Access to information is a major barrier threatening the independence of many people in the blindness community,” said Kim Charlson, director of Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library. “By introducing billing in braille and large print, NSTAR is giving customers who are blind or visually impaired the ability to read their electric bills independently without assistance from a sighted person.”

Many utilities are finding increased customer satisfaction, success and profit by offering products and services that their customers value. While doing research for my book, “Customer Service: Utility Style,” I found that successful utilities have well-defined products and services and offer a variety of each to meet their customers’ needs.

take a disciplined approach

One of the most important stages in the product and service development cycle is the adoption of a disciplined approach. A disciplined approach guides a utility through an objective evaluation of the product or service under consideration.

A disciplined approach ensures that there are controls around the amount of funds and resources to produce a product or service, and that the company is able to react to market changes by introducing product and services in a timely manner. An objective “go/no” decision is enabled by identifying, in advance, key attributes and/or metrics for each stage.

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Some companies will have thresholds established for a new product or service. For example, on a revenue-producing service a company may indicate that to proceed, it must be capable of bringing in a threshold amount of revenue. Metrics like these help prioritize the many product and service opportunities. By using the four-step process in the product and service development cycle a utility can make an educated “go/no” decision at key intervals in the product and service development cycle.

understand market demands

Utilities continue to identify new product and service offerings but Brad Kates, president of Opinion Dynamics Corporation, suggests that they should exercise caution as they consider expanding products and services, particularly competitive ones.

Customer research reveals that companies with a strong reputation with their customers for providing high quality service are in a position to consider competitive service offerings. But customers express concern about a utility offering competitive services if they perceive the utility as not providing its core services as well.

Utilities that apply a disciplined approach to product and service development will be successful in offering customers products and services that meet market demands, increase satisfaction and are financially viable. A fundamental key is listening to customers and gaining an understanding of their expectations. Here is a sampling of products and services utilities are offering today:

Outage information

Utilities are providing customers with more accurate, timely information on outage conditions.

Energy management services

Customers look to their utility for advice on managing their energy bill, so utilities are responding with a variety of energy management services.

Telephony services

Utilities are using toll free numbers, high call volume answering systems, language lines, interactive voice response (IVR), and outbound dialers to enhance communications with customers. A few utilities are now offering IVRs in other languages or with speech recognition.

Payment convenience

Utilities offer customers a variety of ways to make payments. Billing options include summary billing and electronic billing-two of the more common billing options being offered-while several utilities are also offering braille, large print bills and bills in languages other than English.

Utilities are investing in web and interactive voice response (IVR) capabilities to give customers a self-serve option and they’re providing new programs for their customers’ convenience, like new mover programs that are designed to simplify the new mover experience by offering customers one-stop-shopping to get most, if not all, of their services, like cable and phone, initiated.

meeting customer expectations

NSTAR clearly met its customers’ needs by offering the choice of a braille or large print bill. Those customers who do elect the braille and large print bills are appreciative of the independence this brings them, and while the subscription rates are not huge, the fact that we are offering this option is well received by customers.

Product and services offerings can impact customer satisfaction, reduce costs or provide revenue enhancement opportunities. Using a defined product and service development process will ensure that the offering aligns with the utility’s brand and appeals to customers.

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 just been published by PennWell Books.

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