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Becoming a beacon of customer service

By Felecia Lokey Etheridge


After facing a variety of challenges over the last decade—both internal and external—Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) customer satisfaction reached an all-time low in early 2012. But an increased focus on customer insights has driven significant increases in satisfaction over the last 18 months.

Helen Burt, senior vice president and chief customer officer, outlines a few key parts of PG&E’s approach to driving that increase.

Know your customers

PG&E’s service territory spans 70,000 square miles in Northern and Central California, from the rugged Northern Coast to serene Santa Barbara, from foggy but fast-paced San Francisco and Silicon Valley to the agricultural Central Valley. This area lends itself to a diverse customer base, and for PG&E, a need to serve each of those customers in their preferred way.

“We found that our customers who prefer traditional methods of interacting with the utility—paying in our local offices or mailing in check, calling our call centers—they were, on the whole, highly satisfied with our service,” Burt said. “But the more tech-savvy side of our customer base didn’t rate us quite as well.”

When her insights team tapped into the most recent customer analytics, they found that the cluster of customers identified as “high-tech” had grown by two-thirds in the last four years, surpassing half of the entire customer base.

The utility was an early adopter with the web, pushing outage updates online and allowing customers to view detailed SmartMeter data for their accounts to better manage energy use. But with the tech capital of the world just a few miles south of its San Francisco headquarters, this wasn’t enough. 

“Over 20 percent of our web hits are now coming from mobile devices,” Burt said, “and that’s growing every day. But our site wasn’t optimized for smartphones or tablets.” 

The utility has worked tirelessly this year to develop its own mobile platform to allow customers to pay their energy statements, view account information, and receive outage notifications on their phones.

“It is so important that we give our customers options to interact with us the way they want to,” Burt said. “We call it ‘Channel of Choice.’”


Listen to your customers

While more and more of PG&E’s customers are viewing their bills online and on their phones, the company still sends out more than 50 million paper energy statements each year. With the company’s focus on continuous improvement, PG&E’s Customer Care team saw an opportunity to re-design the energy statement so that customers could find relevant information more easily.

After getting detailed suggestions from 1,200 customers, PG&E completely re-vamped their energy statement with a larger type size, at-a-glance billing numbers, and new visual energy data information to help customers better understand and manage their energy usage. Basic information such as the total amount due, due date, account number, and PG&E's contact information is easier than ever to find. Graphs and charts show daily energy usage and trends in monthly totals, with further details on subsequent pages. These new energy statements are also available in Chinese and Spanish, a first for a California utility, in addition to the braille and large-font bills PG&E has previously offered. 

"Our new energy statement is really a credit to our customers' thoughtful advice on how to make it work for them,” said Burt. "They told us what they need to know each month and suggested how we could better tell that story. The result is much more than a bill. It's a powerful tool for helping customers take charge of their energy use and hopefully save money in the process. It’s particularly timely given the impact that hot summer weather has on customer energy usage and electric bills."


Localize, localize, localize

Returning to its diverse customer base, PG&E has also embarked upon an initiative to turn the Fortune 200 energy company into a local utility with a local face. Burt’s goal is to make sure the company shows up as “One PG&E” to its customers, but she also saw a need to understand local issues and appeal to local interests in the communities it serves. Recognizing the vast differences from one area to the next, PG&E initiated its Local Presence Initiative, which is standing up 19 division-level leadership teams and 4 regional teams that bring together representatives from multiple lines of business to escalate customer concerns and work cross-functionally to address them quickly.

“Our customers really trust and admire the men and women of PG&E who live and work in their communities,” Burt said. “It was critical to us that we built local teams who know their areas intimately so they can make the right decisions for our customers—their neighbors.”

For example, the Division Leadership Team in Sonoma, one of California’s renowned winemaking regions, knows the seasonal needs of it vineyard customers, like the critical harvest and grape crush in the late summer. The team there can adjust planned utility work so as not to disrupt this crucial part of the winemaking process. The team in Kern County, at the southern end of the central valley, faces very different challenges with high-yield agricultural customers and oil production prominent there. Each Division Leadership Team can approach local challenges with the right context and knowledge to best serve its local customers.

PG&E is also managing potentially disruptive planned safety and reliability upgrades by designating a team of local people whose primary responsibility is to communicate early and often about upcoming utility work. PG&E’s Customer Impact teams provide letters, phone messages and door-to-door notification of upcoming gas and electric projects and are available to discuss and answer questions about PG&E projects in each area. What started out as a necessary communication to inform customers in advance of gas pipeline upgrades has quickly expanded to both gas and electric infrastructure projects throughout the service area. This unique level of commitment to customer outreach is a driving factor in PG&E’s rising customer satisfaction. 


Tell your own story

Finally, PG&E found through experience that when a company is not telling its own story, there are not many others who will do it for them. With paid advertising campaigns, company social media properties, executive and local Twitter accounts and earned media outreach, the company is telling its story with a message that is both simple and authentic: When ordinary energy is put in the hands of extraordinary people, amazing things happen. 

Powering the special and the everyday moments of our customers’ lives inspires PG&E’s employees to new heights of innovation and customer service.


Felecia Lokey Etheridge is senior director of customer engagement at Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). She’s been with PG&E for six years and in the industry for 35 years.


Have you read the Nov/Dec issue of Intelligent Utility magazine? This article is from that print issue. Catch up with more of the latest articles from industry insiders, associations and utilities by clicking this link to download a PDF. And keep an eye out for the Jan/Feb issue coming soon, filled with predictions for the industry from the DOE, IEEE, the U.S. Army, EURELECTRIC, SGIP, PJM and a number of utilities.



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Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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