Regardless of what people say about the advantages of the Internet (instant access and around-the-clock service), the rules for customer service haven’t changed. Service is still the primary driver of satisfaction. Vendors watch in horror as Internet shopping cart abandonment rates approach 60 percent simply because customers can’t figure out if they’re buying the right things. We can only wonder at the dropout rate as customers attempt to find information on Web sites, but leave in failure, having had an incomplete, indeed negative, experience.
Customer satisfaction goes up as indifferent service goes down. Every vendor knows that it’s the service experience, much more than product quality, that affects how customers feel about a company. This is particularly true for utilities. The vast majority of customers, whether residential or commercial, have long ago stopped worrying about the quality of their actual utility service. Outside of abnormal events such as storms, expectations are literally at 100 percent for service reliability; so customers judge their level of satisfaction primarily based on service interaction.
The utility industry must not rely on the quality and reliability of its services alone to make its customers happy. Ultimately, it will be the interaction a company has with its customers that will drive their buying decisions. Customers won’t hesitate to criticize (and remember) instances of poor customer service.
How then can you complete the package, linking outstanding service quality with great customer service? The answer is simple: by making it personal.
While you can’t speak in person to your customers over the Web, you can do something just as effective: adjust your Web presentation so that each customer has a personal experience, tailored to his or her individual interaction. This might sound far-reaching, but it’s not.
Web sites often are seen as content repositories, where customers can access information about a company. While important, this aspect of information sharing ignores the abundance of information you have about your customers. You know the customer’s purchasing and payment history, the status of service and outage resolutions by area, demand forecasts and a wealth of other information about your customers.
Imagine greeting a visiting customer with a Web page that said, “Hello Mr. Jones. Thank you for visiting us online. We anticipage higher-than-normal use of electricity in your area this week, due to the unusually hot weather and the use of air conditioning. Thank you for your most recent payment of $31.78…”
Today less than three percent of all Web sites nationwide have utilized extensive personalization in their customer interaction. While the technical tools exist to tie customer information databases to Web services, the decision to personalize Web interaction is a business decision.
Creating the personal touch means front-ending your traditional customer applications (bill payment, service modification, etc.) with the intelligence to adapt your Web interaction uniquely to each and every customer. Instead of creating Web applications that reference information repositories, the technical challenge is to link your existing back-end customer applications with the Web-facing front-end interfaces. In short, move your customer data as close to the customer as possible. Insulating your information repositories from the outside world may be tempting, but it does little to extend the personal touch to your most important visitors-your customers.
A customer’s interaction with you is based on his or her fundamental belief that you already know who he or she is. Your customers want the whole weight of your past interaction with them reflected in their ability to interact with you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Failure to use this information simply dooms your Web site-and the impressions you make through customer service-to the vast category of indifferent.
The utility industry is undergoing many fundamental changes, but none more important than the issue of customer retention. The more you can do to lock in customers, using highly personalized services that recognize the unique value of each customer, the more you can do to create loyalty that will trascend competitive pressure.
Don’t let the mass of poor Internet experiences out there now change your mind about the importance of customer satisfaction. Most Web sites provide, at best, minimal customer service. You’ll find that even modest efforts in understanding how your customers interact with you over the Web, and how you greet and assist them effectively, will earn you tremendous gains in customer loyalty and satisfaction.
Matt Kramer, vice president, manages Syntegra’s North American Utility Industry Vertical, concentrating on solutions that maximize interaction value between customers and providers. For more information, visit www.us.syntegra.com/energy, or contact Kramer directly at 651-415-4060 or Matt.Kramer@syntegra.com.