Multi-Channel Customer Engagement Model Enhances the Customer Experience and Improves Program Performance

Posted on January 22, 2014
Posted By: Jim McCarthy

Optimizing the "customer experience" is no longer just a focus for destination resorts or retail stores. Strengthening customer engagement is essential for utility and energy companies today as customers increasingly demand and expect quick access to up-to-date information. In today's `real-time' communications age, poor customer service can produce immediate and long-lasting negative repercussions.

Customer engagement is often a difficult task to define, implement and measure due to a number of institutional factors including a lack of historical emphasis, limited resources and scalability within the organization. Yet, the impact of poor customer service or limited infrastructure to support it is most apparent during severe weather events, in low program enrollment and general weak brand perception.

Some energy providers in the Northeast are still repairing their reputations and customer relationships that were damaged after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Irene in 2011. A J.D. Power 2013 Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study ranked "communications" as one of the lowest rated categories of satisfaction. An Accenture survey this past summer found that less than a quarter of consumers "trust" their utility company. These challenges are exacerbated by social media when poor service and negative brand perception can easily translate into scathing public comments on Facebook and Twitter and rapid fire complaints on the internet to media, consumer groups and government agencies with the click of a `send button.'

With this in mind, and in the wake of recent severe weather events that resulted in negative publicity and government inquiries about customer service, utilities are rethinking their customer engagement strategies. Gulf Power recently overhauled its voice response unit in answer to complaints about the difficulty customers experienced reaching a live person. PG&E has expanded its communication channels to include call center agents, online chat, mobile devices and social media platforms.

Developing a broader, multi-channel platform for customer communications is one of the smartest investments that can be made today. In addition to bolstering customer communications, utilities can also significantly benefit from a more comprehensive, accurate and updated platform for data collection and results reporting. One key area where utilities can leverage the full potential of a multi-channel customer engagement platform is improving enrollment for programs that are designed to help customers save energy and lower bills.

The EPA's National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency cites customers' "lack of information" and "lack of program awareness" as key barriers to the implementation of energy efficiency programs in all customer segments except new residential homes. Often, strong customer engagement does make a difference in a world of short attention spans, information overload and the constant competition for attention. Employing a holistic, surround-strategy that utilizes a multi-channel customer engagement approach and emphasizes personalization delivers the message effectively. This is as critical as the message itself.

The customer experience that generates positive reviews and brand loyalty today delivers accurate, relevant and personalized information on an individual basis. The role of the call center is too often narrowly focused on intake volume rather than the quality and depth of output in the customer relationship. Implementing a truly holistic customer experience model that utilizes the call center as the foundation for a multi-channel approach is critical. Integrating everything from online support to mailing marketing materials and tracking customer interaction has proven to be successful and is not just good customer service but distinguished engagement.

This model's effectiveness is most valuable for programs such as energy incentives due to the complexity of program requirements, regulatory dynamics and potentially confusing information for the customer. Given the potential program intricacies and cost of rollout, consumer benefit information should be readily available and highlighted by call center representatives, marketing outreach material and website content. The EPA's conclusion that customers were simply unaware or had limited information about energy efficiency programs might be frustrating but reinforces the need to aggressively utilize multiple channels of communication and do so with planned frequency and an aligned message.

Some utilities are also revisiting their communication strategies surrounding federally funded programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). A recent overview of performance measurements in LIHEAP highlighted those programs that deliver effective data-sharing between home energy suppliers and LIHEAP grantees. At the core of their success was effective consumer engagement and clear communication of program operations. The LIHEAP programs that were most effective also excelled at data collection and integration which provided valuable insights on applicants that could then be used to target additional services and improve performance.

In addition to programs, online customer dashboards have proven to be one of the most successful methods of improving customer engagement and collecting data to enhance and grow those relationships. Many utilities have increased their investment in these dashboards because of the scalability they offer in creating deep benefits for the provider and user seeking information and connectivity. Many of these dashboards are fed by advanced Smart Meter Data and offer several HAN self-service options. These customer engagement tools have shown the potential to increase program participation and brand loyalty as well as drive quicker service resolution, bill payments and valuable customer feedback.

Approximately 46% of utilities now offer customers the ability to access their usage information online. And while driving customers to a website can have substantial benefits, updating the online experience is vital. The ideal utility or energy website is evolving due to advances in technology and customers' expectations for dynamic features like outage maps. A customer-driven web design focused on the user experience is designed to adjust their web strategy to ever-changing customer expectations, so that Web traffic, and thus self-service and customer satisfaction, can continue to grow.

Utility and energy companies need to think of themselves today as information providers as much as service providers. Technology has intensified the expectation of real-time, accessible, personalized information and service. Providers that embrace this challenge and employ a multi-faceted communications platform will enjoy a competitive advantage. Specialized customer care agents, informative marketing materials and robust online channels, all centered on personalizing the customer experience, will improve program performance, data integrity and overall customer satisfaction.

Authored By:
Jim McCarthy joined Solix in May 2012 as Vice President of Sales and is responsible for the company's sales strategies and marketing efforts. Jim's extensive experience includes a record of achievement at Verizon where he progressed through the sales, marketing and business planning ranks beginning as a sales account executive and culminating as a regional vice president responsible for managing the company's 60 largest accounts. In addition, he served as

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