Welcome Aboard. Now Please Fend for Yourself.

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 “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” –Will Rogers

When you invite people over to your home, you probably would first give them directions (maybe even a couple of route options), offer to take their coat when they arrive and then offer them a seat and a beverage. We want our friends to like us and know that we value their relationship. At the start of a utility relationship, however, we typically ask new customers, or Newcomers, to initiate “start-service requests” on their own and then notify us of the type of bill that they want to receive. Sometimes we ask them to set up a self-service online account so that they can opt-in to more offerings and options themselves. In other words, utilities are sending new customers the message that they are on their own.

So, it is not surprising that of the 12 customer segments Cogent Reports tracks in our Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential study, Newcomers score utilities the lowest except for the Out of Touch segment, which represents the smallest percentage of customers who don’t want to engage with their utility. Additionally, brand affinity among Newcomers only increased by four points over last year, which means utilities’ process of welcoming customers is not improving.

Brand Trust Rankings by Customer Segment

Don’t Be Just a Pretty Face

What’s worse, the relationship does not start off poorly. Customers requesting start service appear very satisfied at first, but after the initial request an ugly reality emerges. On average, Newcomers who start service by phone rate customer service a very high score of 796, and those who initiate service online give an average rating of 809—indicating strong levels of satisfaction. But the love affair ends there. After initiating service, one in three (32%) has to call back to resolve issues regarding their start service: almost one in four (24%) to talk about “an issue with their account,” another one in three (36%) to figure out how to pay their bill, 32% to make a “change to their account,” and 15% to change their bill payment or rate plan. And even though service sign-up is the perfect time to ensure customers take advantage of offerings and options, only 26% say that a CSR recommended any products during the call. These all add up to a fractured and frustrating experience that should have been seamless.

In an industry so focused on operational satisfaction, this study reveals a sorely neglected area. Leaving customers to fend for themselves provides a rocky start to a relationship that should easily be much stronger. While new customers eventually find the basic offerings they want—40% use electronic billing and another 40% set up mobile or online service in lieu of the traditional and default mail-in payment solution—there are more value-add and engaging services that customers can utilize.

After signing up for service, Newcomers are “shopped out” and do not seek other value-added offerings because their first experience has shown them that it will be difficult or not worth the time and energy. This leaves utilities with lost opportunities to deepen customer relationships. For example, only 6% of Newcomers use any type of consumption management offering even though moving into a new house is the perfect time to upgrade the energy efficiency of a home. Moreover, only 6% use an enhanced service support channel, and more use phone service over other less expensive service channels.

Best Practices for Establishing Stronger Newcomer Relationships

Only 16 of 129 utilities exhibit best practices in establishing strong customer relationships with Newcomers. For example, AEP PSO’s start service asks for the location of the home being connected and then proceeds to ask the customer for information “About You,” providing billing and service options. Southern California Edison’s online Move Center walks customers through the process of turning on service and suggests billing and payment options. Some other best practices include:

  • Introducing billing and payment options during start service requests
  • Presenting energy efficiency and consumption management options to determine interest at service turn-on
  • Orienting customers to the utility, community and local involvement opportunities with a welcome kit
  • Developing a product catalog to provide to customers
  • Initiating contact 30 days after service turn-on to ensure customer satisfaction
  • Surveying customers to understand what went well and obtain suggestions on future welcoming activities
  • Ensuring consistency of brand and image in new customer materials
  • Reinforcing the utility’s value proposition with customers

To be clear, self-service is not a bad thing. It is a great approach that many customers desire. The issue is with the efficacy and ease of becoming a customer. Remember, at sign-up customers are establishing a relationship, where trust and reliability are basic foundations. Educating customers on how we can best serve them positively positions our future recommendations on products, services and communications. The key is to profile customer segments, understand their expectations, and find the best ways to serve and welcome them to their utility as well as their new community.

Top Utility Newcomer Scores

Want to know more about the study or where your utility stands? Review the Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential fact sheet.


Review the details on the Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement: Residential Study




This entry was posted in Brand and Messaging, Energy, Segmentation by Chris Oberle. Bookmark the permalink.
Chris Oberle

About Chris Oberle

Chris Oberle is a senior vice president in the Energy Research division, with more than 25 years of executive management experience in the energy and financial services sectors. He manages the development and delivery of syndicated studies, custom research, best practices and advisory services. Throughout his career, Chris has earned a reputation as a customer experience thought leader by helping clients improve the way they develop, deliver, engage and satisfy customers with their programs and brands. Chris earned an MBA from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California. He coaches youth sports and spends time with his kids at USC and UCLA.

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