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Three Ways to Truly Engage Customers

As a marketer I can admit, we use buzz words to get your attention.

If you read a technology solution is “innovative, disruptive, and customer-centric,” do your ears perk up? Probably. These words are meant to get attention, but they are often used when they may not apply. In fact, suggests “innovation” is the “buzzword of the decade” within the technology industry.

This begs the question – do we all truly understand what these words mean? And when we use them, do we really intend their true meaning?

Another common term on every utility and energy conference exhibition floor is the all-powerful “customer engagement.” Utilities are spending billions to “engage” customers, or are they?

According to Merriam Webster, the word “engagement” has a few meanings. I’m pretty sure we do not intend to marry our customers, nor have them meet us at a particular time, therefore in terms of utility customer engagement, the word represents “the act of engaging” and “emotional involvement.”

So sending an email, is that engagement? Depends if you think email equates to involvement, which in today’s flooded email inboxes, I doubt opening an email means we are engaged. Having customers pay online, is that engagement? While this lowered transactional cost provides other benefits to a utility and its customers, a digital method of payment doesn’t actually “emotionally involve” customers.

To truly engage customers, a utility is asking customers to become interested in what his or her utility is doing and how the business impacts lives of customers and those using the services provided. Considering Americans are known for viewing electricity, heat, and clean water as a “right,” true customer engagement is no easy feat.

After visiting and working with close to ten North American utility companies in 2017, here are three ways I’ve seen utilities achieve success in the pursuit of true customer engagement.

Three ways to engage customers:

1. Be where your customers are.

Email sends do not count as engagement. Completing a phone survey is not engagement. Paying a bill online is not engagement. I still get eye rolls when I talk about the opportunity for utilities on social media, but it's where your customers are multiple times a day. Plus, people love to learn and share and connect on social media! The negative posts will always exist, but the more a utility comments and responds to customers on social media, the higher the customer engagement rates will be. And the best news – those negative posts diminish when a utility has a strong, consistent, and creative presence on social media. Georgia Power is an excellent example with some fascinating metrics behind their work.

2. Start the engagement with customers first.

Proactive high bill alerts are an incredibly helpful form of engagement, especially if they provide education. IVR prompts suggesting the reason for the call are also a sure way to improve the customer experience. To start the conversation, knowing customer preferences and profiles is the first step. My electric and gas utility has been emailing me beautiful, optimized emails for a Care program that I haven’t qualified for… well, ever. But, they keep sending the emails and paper applications. Have you ever been around a person who after years of working or living or socializing with them, he or she still do not know your dog’s name? It’s hard to build a relationship with someone who doesn’t take the time to know you. Knowing your customers is the first step.

3. Identify with customers and address their fears.

I’m in California, and yes, there are a lot of regulations on how utilities can interact with customers. But the traditional methods of public relations - transparency, addressing issues head on, positioning and branding - these cannot be regulated. I'm not exactly a fan of Delta Airlines, but I was recently on a flight traveling into Atlanta less than 36 hours after power was restored from the power outage on December 17, 2017. Before take-off, the pilot addressed what everyone was thinking: He told the passengers (I'm paraphrasing), "Delta is committed to getting you to your final destination as quickly and safely as possible. The Atlanta Airport is nearly back to normal operations following the weekend activities, and we’ll do all we can to get you to your final destination if connecting there." These two sentences significantly reduced anxieties of other business/holiday travelers. Being upfront, identifying with the fears or concerns of customers, and creating a community of ‘we’re in this together’ will improve your brand, and therefore your business.

Presence is not engagement. If you really want to engage with customers in 2018 and beyond, taking the time to know them is essential. It’s amazing what falls into place after that.

Have you had success implementing a new customer engagement initiative? Comment below or contact me with your story! I'd love to feature your work.



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