Developing a Partner Relationship with Customers -- Part 1 of 2

Doug Cox | Apr 26, 2011

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More than any time that most of us can remember, the nation and the world face uncertainties that may have significant impact on energy cost and usage in the United States. Extreme weather in North America and political upheavals on the other side of the globe can cause service disruptions that increase costs for utilities and eventually for consumers. Apart from predictable seasonal usage and rate adjustments, the rising rates are due to events that are simply beyond the control of utility companies. However, they are forced to become the bearers of bad news when there is no choice but to charge customers higher rates, and customers may "blame the messenger" for these increasing costs.

In such a scenario, customer communications become even more critical, allowing energy providers to address two key issues: why rates are rising, and what both the utility and the customer can do about it. Energy providers confront an additional challenge in how to convey this information through an affordable communications vehicle that customers will see, read, and understand. This is why many utilities have taken the opportunity to use customer invoices as one effective tool for customer communications.

Breaking down the silos

Technology exists today to design invoices that include visual devices to clearly show how usage varies seasonally per customer. These technologies draw on data sources like customer account histories and meter readings to deliver easy-to-understand graphics such as bar graphs or pie charts to indicate fluctuations in use over time. The result is invoices that are personalized for each customer and address their particular consumption in a way that they can quickly grasp and understand.

The raw data used to create these graphics is drawn from several sources, which for many energy providers may mean breaking down the barriers between their "silos" of information. For example, some information may be stored in customer account files, while other data comes from in-the-field reports. Adding an energy-saving tip will likely call upon the data owned by yet another internal division. Additionally, regional energy companies may encompass several different operating units, each with its own data system. In some cases, compatibility becomes an issue.

What is required is a single data platform that can draw upon all of these data sources and formats to combine the information in ways that the consumer can see and understand at a glance and can even be used to incorporate deeply personalized marketing messages and other information, and present it all on the customer invoice.

Call to action

In addition to explaining variations in billing rates, energy providers might offer tips on how customers can reduce their usage and/or get the most from the energy they do consume. These hints also can be included on the invoice, perhaps as a simple line or two to remind the customer to monitor their home heating thermostats and/or unplug those electrical appliances that are rarely used.

To implement all of this, energy providers should take a second, close look at their current invoice. Does it contain terminology that consumers may not understand? Are the billable items, including taxes and other charges, clearly explained? Are the rates presented in a straightforward way? If not, providers might consider a redesign that can actually reduce the length and complexity of the invoice while making it easier for customers to understand.

Customers definitely open and read their utility invoices, while they may just dispose of anything that looks like marketing material without a careful review. Using the invoice as a communications medium ensures that customers will get the message and they are then much more likely to act on it.

Shared responsibility

Finally, in times of uncertainty, it may be helpful for energy providers to convey a message that "we're all in this together." Utility companies and their customers are equally impacted by events that are simply beyond local, quick and simple solutions.

Taking on the role of partner with consumers can inspire a sense of customer loyalty and gain their support. While energy providers are doing all they can to deliver reliable energy at the lowest possible rate, consumers can help themselves by using it in the most efficient way to reduce their expenses where they can.

Many energy providers already take advantage of today's new communications technologies to improve customer experience and customer relations. When these capabilities are in place they have proven to be an effective way to develop positive, "entangled" relationships between suppliers and customers. When customers begin to trust that the energy company sees and understands their individual situation and is acting to support them, the results can only be positive.

In these unpredictable times, forging such links with consumers becomes increasingly important. And in this rapidly-changing world, one thing energy providers certainly can control is how they communicate with their customers.

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Comments

From what I have been told from research sources, I agree that bill inserts are very ineffective, From my personal experience I think that people can resent these inserts for a variety of individually perceived reasons... adding to paper waste, self-serving propaganda, cost that may or may not be passed on to customers. While I agree with the author's suggestions and intent, in some cases this type of messaging (e.g. the impact of arbitrary copper commodity price based state and city property tax increases on cable that was installed years ago) may be specifically prevented by regulatory restrictions on what can be said on a billing statement. In addition Privacy restrictions that vary widely state to state may make some desired individualization of billing statements problematic.
Pat Duggan
Valley Cottage, NY