We recently released our 2016 Utility Customer Champions, which awards gas, electric and combination utilities nationwide that have the highest scores on our proprietary Engaged Customer Relationship index. Among this list are 26 utilities that have “three-peated,” meaning they’ve been designated as a Customer Champion every year since we started these awards in 2014.
Here’s what sets these utilities apart, and what your utility can do to get on the path of enduring customer engagement:
Focus on brand trust
The gap between utilities that three-peated and those that didn’t was greatest on our Brand Trust Index – 45 points on a 1,000-point scale. Moreover, since we began the Utility Trusted Brand and Customer Engagement™ study in 2014, this gap has grown by 3 points, slightly edging out growth in the Operational Satisfaction gap (+2 points) and Product Experience, which has actually declined around half a point during this time.
An exemplar of laser-focused Brand Trust is TECO Peoples Gas, which led the industry in 2016 with a 789 Brand Trust Index score. It is not only the top utility nationwide in Brand Trust, but it also leads the second-highest scoring utility by 38 points!
Invest in digital customer communications
Across all three study years, there are a number of communications channels that “three-peat” utility customers recall at a significantly higher rate than the overall industry average. These channels include utility social media, utility website, online advertising and text messaging.
What’s the one channel that three-time Utility Customer Champion customers recall at a rate significantly higher than average while other utilities customers recall at a rate significantly lower? Email. And guess which channel customers prefer most for general utility communications as well as service interactions? You got it—email .
The utility that leads the pack on email communications is Florida Power & Light. It excels at using that channel, with 22% of FPL’s customers saying they recall having gotten an email from the utility in 2016.
Don’t forget about the environment
Another distinguishing factor in three-time Utility Customer Champions’ performance is customer perception that the utility is committed to using environmentally-friendly energy. While this isn’t the highest-ranked environmental dedication attribute (that honor goes to “provides tools/programs to help customers save energy”), three-peat Utility Customer Champions outperform non-three-peaters by an average of 0.46 (on a 10-point scale) on perception that they’re committed to using environmentally-friendly energy.
The fact that three-time Utility Customer Champions score so well on environmental perception helps explain why 58% of Customer Champions in 2015 were also named Environmental Champions, increasing to 61% in 2016. The top five utilities in our Environmental Dedication Index at year’s end were all three-time Utility Customer Champions, led by Portland General Electric. 29% of PGE’s customers are aware of the utility’s efforts to limit the environmental impact of its service and operations (among the highest scores in the industry).
Remember that operational excellence isn’t passé
While we don’t necessarily see huge customer engagement gains driven by operational excellence, we mean it when we say that it’s the foundation for strong customer engagement. In each of the three years we’ve run this study, the “three-peat” Utility Customer Champions’ customers report hearing about rate increases and having a service interruption at much lower rates than their peers – 13% vs. 17% for rate increases and 14% vs. 17% for outages.
As a result, when we look at operational excellence – which we define as not having or hearing of an outage or safety issue, not heard about a rate increase and not received an inaccurate bill – it’s not surprising that two of the top three utilities were Columbia Gas – South and NW Natural, both three-time Utility Customer Champions.
Although the effort required for this kind of performance (not to mention results) may not be front-page flashy, keeping a strong focus on the core business of the utility is crucial to developing the kind of trusted relationship that allows for greater overall customer engagement.
Never stop thinking about how to better serve customers
Among utility brand activities, two of the biggest gaps between three-time Utility Customer Champions and other utilities is in perception that the “utility is a great product provider” (7% difference in 2016) and that the “utility is an industry leader on innovation” (3% difference in 2016). Creating these perceptions requires doing two things successfully – actually providing great innovative products to customers (i.e., customer experience) and communicating about it (i.e., product marketing).
Innovations like the Georgia Power Marketplace make it easy for customers to take advantage of energy efficiency rebates by applying them at the point of sale through a compelling web storefront. This not only helps the utility compete for consumer mindshare but also for share-of-wallet.
Nothing about what sets three-time Utility Customer Champions apart from other utilities is somehow inherently unique to them. Rather, what ties these five factors together is that they collectively show how these utilities display a consistent ability to understand what their customers want and to deliver it. The organizational capacity required to do this simply depends on internal leadership and commitment.
Congratulations to all of our three-time Utility Customer Champions! We can’t wait to see where you take the industry next.
Indianapolis Power & Light
Portland General Electric
PPL Electric Utilities
Salt River Project
New Jersey Natural Gas
Piedmont Natural Gas
TECO Peoples Gas
Texas Gas Service
Virginia Natural Gas
Louisville Gas & Electric