Confidence in local electric utilities is soaring. What are they doing right?
By Sid Ridgley
By Sid Ridgley
December 31, 2020 – This pandemic has affected everyone and every business in Canada. For many, the worry-and-angst-meter is almost off the chart! In the UtilityPULSE 22nd Annual Customer Satisfaction Survey for Electric Utilities* across Canada, 25% to 30% of residential respondents indicated the pandemic had financially impacted them.
Even starker, 28% of residential respondents are worried about paying their electricity bill if the Covid-19 pandemic continues. To put things into perspective, in a normal year, only 3% to 5% of respondents will state that paying for electricity is often a major problem.
That’s a substantial difference!
In a world where so many people are worried or have suffered a loss in certainty, two shifts in perception about their local electric utility have taken place:
First, concerns customers have about their utility are subordinate to any concerns they have about what is happening or could happen to them, their loved ones, or their business should the pandemic continue.
Second, during uncertain times, we will do what we have always done, and that is to look for people and organizations that are credible, who can be trusted and are empathetic.
The survey tells us that 90% of respondents agree that their electric utility is trusted and trustworthy, and 96% agree their utility provides consistent reliable electricity. Strong numbers indeed.
(Just five years ago, the trust and trustworthy number was 82%. To achieve an 8-point increase in an industry riddled by government intervention is a huge change to the positive.)
Did electric utilities get lucky?
No. Every electric utility made numerous operational changes to ensure the reliability of electricity delivery remained strong and, when outages occurred, they responded quickly and professionally.
To be clear, I know that electric utilities are forward-looking enterprises operating in a rules-based environment, but that doesn’t stop them from anticipating customers’ wants and needs. This pandemic helped accelerate the implementation of online services that were already planned while making improvements in how parts, equipment and teams operate to ensure the electricity network remains reliable.
In addition, electric utilities supported plans to help customers with bill payments, either by finding payment options or referring customers to various government programs.
But that is not all; many utilities also had the challenge of communicating electricity pricing or policy changes handed to them from a government department or the industry’s regulator… not an easy task.
With first-hand knowledge of the industry, I know electric utility employees stepped up and did what was necessary to ensure electricity distribution wasn’t going to be added to the list of worries. In fact, it is a point of pride among these employees to not add to customer worries.
From the telephone survey, feedback shows that respondents’ confidence in their electric utility to continue to handle issues and challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic was 85%+ in areas such as:
• The utility’s ability to meet its obligation to deliver electricity efficiently and safely.
• The professionalism of customer service representatives.
• Being able to reach a representative when the customer had an issue.
• The ability to resolve those issues.
From another, Covid-specific survey (online), we also learned that about 40% of some 3000+ respondents had an improved perception about their electric utility with regard to:
• Providing consistent, reliable energy
• Delivering on its service commitments to customers
• Quickly handling outages and restoring power
• Being a trusted and trustworthy company
• Being a respected company in the community
• Being proactive in communicating changes and issues that may affect customers
• Adapting well to change
The finding that interested me the most was that 89% of telephone survey respondents said it was important that their electric utility be a primary source of information about various government programs or issues potentially impacting the cost-effective, reliable, and safe electricity delivery.
Customers want and rely on their electric utility to provide useful information.
No such thing as going back to normal
More Canadians are experiencing negative emotions at this time than ever before, and those emotions could have hurt their perception of their electric utility. One of the causes of those negative emotions is our attempt to apply life definitions for happiness, success, credibility and trust—which existed before the pandemic—to today’s reality.
The world has changed, and we need new definitions.
From my perspective (developed over 22 years of customer research), electric utilities intentionally set out to be seen as caring and calming organizations during this pandemic. They shouldered a huge burden on behalf of government and regulators to help customers understand the numerous policy, program, and pricing changes.
Government and regulators cannot go back to normal. They need to recognize that electric utilities have the confidence of customers. They also need to adopt policies and programs that support the utility’s strength of interacting with customers professionally and with empathy.
My recommendation to government and regulators is to stop behaving as though an adversarial relationship with electric utilities provides better outcomes for paying customers. It does not. I also recommend trusting the talent, experience and wisdom of the people who work at the utility; after all, they are the face of the utility and of the industry in the communities they serve.
Electric utilities, too, cannot go back to normal, nor should they become complacent. The gain in confidence among customers has been partially achieved by excelling, as businesses, in the safe, reliable, and cost-effective delivery of electricity.
The bigger part of maintaining this gain in confidence is to continue to embrace the reality that electric utilities are “people-serving-people” enterprises, in service to the communities they serve.
Going forward, electric utilities must continue to make getting information or service “easy and fast” for time-pressed customers, and they need to remain empathetic. This means continuing to think more like a customer than a regulator.
* The UtilityPULSE survey involved 5000+ telephone surveys of residential and small business owners between August and October, 2020.
Sid Ridgley is a business leader and researcher who helps electricity industry leaders capture information, insights, feedback, and wisdom from their customers. He can be reached at 905-895-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find Sid on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @sidridgley.