By Atineh Haroutunian, GWP, and Kaitlyn Marmaduke, SUS
Delivering reliable power and water to its more than 88,000 electric and 33,000 water customers is a charge that Glendale Water & Power (GWP) has pursued with pride and passion for over a century. Each day its team members strive to provide service that is world class, environmentally sustainable and cost conscious for the Glendale, California community.
Delivering high-caliber resource offerings to customers is a challenge for all utilities, and requires executives to focus on a host of issues, including the regulatory environment, conservation, physical assets and infrastructure, pricing and cost structure.
Too often overlooked, however, are the logistics of customer connection, particularly concerning client communication, outreach and engagement. Effective client interaction is a critical tool for utilities as they strive for higher profitability, to reach their key performance indicators and develop more efficient resource management protocols.
What does customer interaction have to do with an organization’s operational dynamics? A great deal when considering that utility customers have an enormous role in shaping the way in which engagement occurs, the messaging with which they connect and how they are articulating their specific requirements. Generally speaking, companies that focus on aligning strategic priorities with customer needs offer a higher value proposition for all stakeholders. Specific to power utilities and energy providers, technological innovation, particularly in customer communication and engagement, is becoming the leading platform for more connected and effective utility/client experiences.
Technology in this case is not just about a top-notch website, but rather developing a comprehensive infrastructure of connectivity that uses innovative utility customer service platforms, social media and mobile technologies. A complete technology architecture places the client and the utility as partners in sharing information, collaborators on power usage and combined stewards of energy and water resources. At GWP, these tools have changed the customer engagement dynamic.
One of the most profound areas in which communication is advancing is social media. According to research from Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange (OTX), 18- to 64-year-olds average 3.2 hours per day on social media. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are transforming the way in which information and knowledge is disseminated. New audiences that traditionally might have been unaware, uninterested or unreachable by 20th century communication outlets are now ready to receive messaging. Because of this, social media advertisement spending is also on the rise, increasing 33 percent in 2015 to $23.68 billion, according to the firm eMarketer. This advertising is not just in banner ads, but also in native advertising and more nuanced content placement.
The rise of mobile is also a dominating theme. According to industry expert comScore: “Smartphone usage is up 394 percent, and tablet usage is up a whopping 1,721 percent since 2010, as these platforms now combine to account for 60 percent of digital media time spent.”
Much of this spent is on mobile apps, according to Business of Apps, which reports that the total number of iOS app downloads in 2015 was 25 billion and the total number of Android app downloads in 2015 was 50 billion. As people conduct more and more business from within an app, the time to digitally engage customers increases.
This trend is particularly true for the Millennial generation. This demographic is changing the way people receive and respond to information. According to Pew Research, only 69 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds live independently. In addition, the National Association of Home Builders reports that Millennials are more likely to delay household formation. This combined with the increase in transient lifestyles means that U.S. mail and traditional paper communication methods are less likely to reach target audiences.
Social Media and App Challenges
Innovative social media platforms, as well as connected apps, allow utilities to reach their customers in a far more cost-conscious and effective way. The technologies have advantages like customization, message efficacy, customer segmentation and resource management. Utility clients who advertise and market their customer service app on social media are surpassing traditional user adoption rates. For executives, however, the challenge of creating integration between customer requirements for information and organizational capacity to provide it is acute.
Marketing a new app is a challenge for any industry, but this is especially true for a utility, particularly in a deregulated market. Retaining customers and continuing the use of an app after initial download is another challenge for utilities. Nearly 80 percent of apps are abandoned after initial use. This statistic from SAP via CIO.com is a motivator for utilities to find new ways to remind their customers of apps and their benefits.
Technology Solution Platforms
Perhaps one of the most successful initiatives utility management can undertake is the adoption of full-service smart technology platforms, which use cloud-based systems to streamline processes and improve overall communication effectiveness with customers. These state-of-the-art systems offer scalability, flexibility, integration and efficiency. For utilities, the features and benefits include:
“- Mobile and IT platforms that allow customers to pay their bills online, view and report outages, analyze their usage, schedule service requests and receive real-time notifications.
“- Analytics and reporting software that identifies customer behavior, client annual savings, usage analysis, customer segmentation and evaluates program effectiveness.
“- Real-time messaging between providers and users that creates synergies in communication, monitoring capability, resource consumption analysis and process improvement.
GWP’s team chose a customer engagement mobile and portal program because it was facing two critical challenges, which required that it deepen its commitment to connecting and communicating with customers. California has been in the midst of a serious drought that has necessitated water consumption reduction statewide. Conservation mandates were set for each water district with penalties assessed for non-compliance. The state’s energy efficiency goals and renewable standards necessitated the need to adopt a bold approach, which would facilitate greater interaction between customers and utility. GWP realized that its customers would be absolutely instrumental in implementing the required solutions.
By using Smart Utility System’s Smart Customer Mobile solution, GWP empowered its customers with the tools that allowed them to better manage their water and energy use. In tandem, the organization benefitted from the platform’s monitoring capability and analytical capacity to achieve reductions in resource consumption. Working on both sides of the customer/utility equation allowed streamlined operations, efficacy in resource management and greater organizational synergies.
These efficiency gains all produced greater profitability and reduced expenses, which produced an exceptional internal rate of return and short payback window, often atypical for a software offering.
From a messaging perspective, the technology system allows GWP to provide content about conservation, usage, delivery, cost and efficiencies. Notification to customers on bill due date, power outages and new offerings is easier. The real benefit, however, is that the utility and customer communication and notification occurs in real time. Thus far, the GWP customer response has been positive:
“- 72 percent of customers are satisfied with the utility’s communication.
“- 80 percent of customers reported overall satisfaction for the year 2015.
“- 82 percent of customers now receive GWP energy and water conservation messages.
“- 90 percent of customers adopted the service for the year 2015.
One of the most positive outcomes from the engagement platform has been the ability to collect and analyze data in a more meaningful way. The system helped GWP better identify customer behavior and provided more meaningful data, leading to more informed decisions and stronger KPI results.
The effect of GWP’s messaging campaign using the aforementioned technology tools including social media drove the following results in conjunction with broader community offerings and programs.
“- Recognition for a second consecutive year from the American Public Power Association as a Reliable Public Power Provider. This designation, awarded to only 176 public power utilities out of 2,000 nationwide, cites public power utilities that provide customers with the highest degree of reliable and safe electric service.
“- Achieving cumulative state-mandated water conservation targets from inception in June 2015 through December 2015. The city of Glendale surpassed its 20 percent threshold by securing a 22.8 percent reduction in water consumption as compared to the same months in 2013.
The landscape of organizational and client connectivity is changing rapidly not only in how information is communicated, but in the content and how recipients use the knowledge. There is a considerable benefit both for the utility and its customers in deploying technology solutions for customer engagement and communication efforts. Using the right technological platform creates greater cohesion and coordination in operations, messaging and servicing. Even more critical though, utility leaders can more effectively own their brand messages and add value for all stakeholders.
Utility executives looking for creative solutions to impact their client relationships and drive positive change inside the institution can enact technology offerings such as social media, apps and software platforms. These innovative tools drive engagement through awareness, responsiveness and connectivity.
Atineh Haroutunian is communications and marketing coordinator for Glendale Power & Water Association. She previously has worked for Hill & Knowlton, Spelling Communications and University of Southern California.
Kaitlyn Marmaduke is the manager of client success for all Smart Utility Systems (SUS) products and leads all post-production implementation support. Through eight years of client relations experience and responsibility to resolve customer challenges, Marmaduke has acquired the necessary skills to engage with customers and make their software implementation a success. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from the University of Hawaii.