utilities value customer service

There are three reasons I shop at a certain grocery store, and believe me, good customer service isn’t one of them.

Driving the latest model bucket truck at DistribuTECH 2006
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In fact, it got so bad a while back that I figured I’d have to add a small dose of humor to get through the experience. So I invented a little gadget I call the surlymeter. It measures bad attitude on a scale of 0 to 100. I have mine calibrated like the pH scale, with neutral in the middle at 50, sullen behavior measured from 51 to 100, and “perfect” at 0. That way, when I’ve encountered a particularly bad-tempered grocery employee, I can have the pleasure of calling the experience one that registered “off the scale.”

Too bad they don’t try as hard as the utility industry does to understand and serve their customers.

Electric and gas utilities worry a lot about customer care. They spend billions of dollars making sure their customers receive the best service possible. They outfit linemen with bucket trucks bristling with the latest technology. They upgrade the grid to make it “smart.” Legislators, consumers and state and federal regulators measure their every move with reliability indices like SAIDI and SAIFI.

When it comes to customer information systems, utilities can practically write the book.

In fact, the book has been written, by our new columnist Penni McLean-Conner, vice president of customer care at NSTAR. NSTAR is Massachusetts’ largest investor-owned electric and gas utility, and Penni’s a specialist in the art and science of customer care. Her book, “Customer Service: Utility Style” is a new release from PennWell books and it’s already in its second printing. Why? Because utilities don’t want that surly-meter going over 50 for one second.

Gaining the customer’s good will is of major importance for a utility, and it can only come from having a customer base with high satisfaction levels. Penni writes, “Utility customer service has transformed over the years. Utilities are recognizing that serving their customers well is not just a cost but a real value.”

The place to start is with a good CIS system. That’s what makes great customer service possible and delivers the ever-important “revenue cycle functions.” All this costs money of course. CIS units are expensive to maintain, enhance and replace. A utility can expect to spend $110 per customer to implement a new CIS. For a utility serving 100,000 customers, that could top out at $11 million when all is said and done.

(I learned all that from Penni’s book, along with a whole lot of other cool stuff. That book’s hard to put down.)

Utilities that are in the market for a CIS system will want to attend CIS Conference 30 coming up in May. It’s a one-stop-shop kind of thing, and that’s probably what makes it one of the industry’s most popular conferences. CIS Conference has delivered professional, unbiased educational opportunities for the utility industry professional for more than 25 years. This year is the conference’s 30th anniversary and they have a great line-up planned. The fact that it’s being held at a great resort in Texas with really good keynote speakers doesn’t hurt either. You can read all about it in this special CIS Conference 30 issue.

There is a huge difference of course between a crummy grocery store experience and the day-to-day relationship we all have with our utilities. My electric bill has to be on time and correct. If I want to purchase green power, I’d like to have that option. If the lights go out, I need to know right away how long it will be before they come back on. (How else will I know whether to refrain from opening the freezer door for a few hours or eat up the rest of the Häagen-Dazs chocolate chocolate chip?) It’s a grave responsibility and I don’t think there’s a utility in this country that doesn’t take its job very, very seriously.

Oh, one more thing. You can borrow my surlymeter anytime. Take it for a spin, maybe pick one up for yourself. Just one piece of advice: Don’t take it along to any large family get-togethers.

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