Utility customer satisfaction: Business customers and JD Power results

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Friday, August 19 2016

Fellows:

Brian Bowen

Editor's note: The following opinion piece first appeared on the Energy Central website.

2016 brings updates from JD Power on utility customers' satisfaction. The good news is that this year, the trendline is up. Business customers' satisfaction is at an 8-year high. According to the survey, utilities are increasingly getting it right on the customer satisfaction front, but a rising tide leads to even more competition for the utility industry's top spots. Some industry frontrunners have seen their leads erode over time as their fellow utilities gain ground in the annual review. What can utilities do to stay ahead? 

A close read of JD Power's results reveals a single trend so simple that it's almost hiding in plain sight. The key to better customer satisfaction lies in better communication. 

Once a month is not enough

Years ago, business customers only heard from their utility company twelve times a year---every time a bill arrived. And why not? Business customers are focused on the bottom line, so why bother them about anything else? JD Power's 2016 survey reveals is that a once a month is not nearly enough to meet 21st century expectations for communication.

Specifically, the survey finds that customers want to be informed---and even more than that---they don't want to be surprised. High bills and missed payments are frustrating. Business customers want to avoid those aggravating fees and charges just as much as residential customers do. They also want to understand how and why their bill changes month-to-month. The 2016 survey finds that customer satisfaction jumps when billing and payment alerts are made available. By that score, utilities who invest in informing their customers will have an edge on their peers.

More products + more awareness = more satisfaction

21st century utilities know it's not enough to just deliver energy. Their business customers---and utility regulators---are increasingly interested in seeing an array of energy options, from solar, to storage, to electric vehicle (EV) incentives, and new rate designs. But what good is it to build these products if customers aren't aware? Apparently not much. 

JD Power shows that awareness of utility services and products is correlated with satisfaction, not just whether or not additional energy products exist. As these new products multiply, that puts the onus on utilities to become trusted advisors who can help their business customers find the best fit for their needs.

Utilities have no trouble creating new and innovative products. For example, Minnesota's utilities, including Xcel Energy, were among the first in nation to offer an EV-specific rate --- and FirstFuel's analysis shows EV charging is a winner for many customers. To encourage uptake, however, utilities must make the value personal. They need to describe the benefits of these new rate plans in terms of an actual customer's use case. That requires analysis, outreach, and communications. Other utilities like ComEd have developed initiatives like SmartGrid Exchange specifically to communicate the benefits of the utility's investment in smart meters. This new metering infrastructure leads to new data streams that can not only create new energy products for ComEd customers, but also lead to enhanced communications over time.

Stay human: the importance of account management

Another key finding from this year's survey is something utilities have known for decades: Customers want to know they're in good hands. That starts with a relationship with a real human person. JD Power reports that customer satisfaction scores rise significantly when businesses have an assigned account manager.

Business customers don't enjoy fighting through a phone tree anymore than residential customers do---and often, they simply don't have time. They have a business to run. Having an assigned account manager gives a clear point of contact for utilities' key customers. Even so, it's not uncommon for utility account managers to have hundreds or even thousands of business accounts assigned to them. The challenge then is how to stay informed about every customer's specific needs.

Smart utilities are leveraging traditional customer relationship management (CRM) tools and conducting customer surveys of their own. Others are looking to the rich datasets they already own and manage. By mining meter data and business information through analytics software provided by FirstFuel, account managers can build a robust profile not only of a customer's load shape and business uses, but also personalized insights on how to save energy, with cost and payback estimates right at their fingertips. When account managers are being asked to serve more customers with less time, this helps them to build a personalized connection not just through handshakes and face time---but also rich energy data. 

Even though customer satisfaction is up overall, it's no time for utilities to get complacent. Industry insiders expect utilities to continue their investments in better communication channels and to keep striving for those top slots in the annual survey. Some utilities will be creating communications plans from the ground up, while others will be leveraging them to new levels. We'll just have to wait till 2017 to see the results. 

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