Greatest Utility Customer Service Myths

by Penni McLean-Conner, Northeast Utilities

Customer service in the utility industry is undergoing significant change as customer expectations rise regarding accurate, timely information and the technologies that provide this information. Some customer service myths used to hold water, but now they’re losing value as operating principles.

Within the next series of columns, I will explore some of these myths to assess whether they’re still plausible, busted or confirmed. Thanks to Chief Customer Officer of Oncor Electric Delivery Brenda Jackson and Deputy General Manager of Shared Services for Austin Energy Kerry Overton for many of the ideas. Jackson, Overton and I served on a CS Week 2012 panel discussion on this

When service levels are low in a call center or meter reading is behind, the quick answer is, “Add employees.” Similarly, metrics are a cornerstone of managing a customer service organization. But are these the right answers?

Myth: Adding Employees Improves Customer Service

Busted! Savvy utility executives across the country are shedding this outdated belief. In the past when service levels were low, the answer was, “Hire quickly.” But increasing the number of employees doesn’t equal better service. Utility executives are focused on having the right skilled employees and tapping into process and technology improvements.

Ensuring the right team is in place to deliver customer service is critical. Dealing with poorly performing employees is challenging, but meeting customers’ needs requires a highly competent team.

Utility leaders are identifying performance standards clearly for employees. These standards address quality and productivity. More important, successful organizations regularly discuss with employees how they are doing in meeting those standards and coaching and supporting quickly when needed. It is about setting standards and holding employees accountable to those standards.

In addition to developing a highly competent team, utility leaders also are applying technology and process improvements to boost productivity. Many technology innovations speed customer inquiry processing or improve fieldwork productivity. Whether it is technology that improves route efficiency and offers customers self-service options instead of calling or processing calls more efficiently, leaders are exploring the latest tools at industry events such as CS Week and are applying them to their own operations.

If you Can’t Measure it, it Doesn’t Exist

Plausible. Measurement is valuable in managing utility meter-to-cash functions. Metrics also support decisionmaking. But believing metrics are the heart and soul of great customer service is dangerous.

There has been great improvement in utility customer service measurement. The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and American Gas Association (AGA) DataSource is an excellent example. This benchmarking tool has matured during the past 15 years and supplies comparisons on more than 2,500 meter-to-cash metrics for participating utilities. Jim Linn notes that utility participants in the DataSource find great value in the data comparisons and the DataSource best practice discussions hosted by AGA/EEI.

But measurement is imperfect. Some aspects of the customer service business are difficult to measure. For example, first-call resolution is a measure that many customer service executives claim to monitor. The metric, however, is measured multiple ways. Some base their performance using the percentage of calls transferred as an indicator of whether the call was handled appropriately. Others rely on call monitoring to determine if the calls are handled in that first contact.

Self-service transactions completed in the interactive voice response (IVR) system also are measured in various ways, depending on the data available from the utility’s IVR. Exploring popular myths in the delivery of customer service is a healthy exercise for any customer service team.

Often the discussion yields new insights or ideas on how to provide better service to customers in a more efficient or higher-quality manner.

Look for more myth discussions in upcoming columns. Greatest Utility Customer Service Myths by Penni McLean-Conner, Northeast Utilities Some customer service myths in the utility industry used to hold water, but now they’re losing value as operating principles.

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 Eff ciency: Principles and Practices,” is available at http:// Reach her at penelope.

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