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In competitive markets, brand strength has long been associated with positive business outcomes, including growing revenue through increased market share, elevated pricing power and higher customer loyalty. While market share and customer loyalty haven’t historically been things utilities think about, they are taking on a new strategic importance as the tectonic plates underpinning the 21st century energy market continue to shift.
Utilities are beginning to manage their brands to support the new market challenges they face—from implementing new rate structures to figuring out how to sustain financial growth. Successfully navigating these challenges requires strong brands with enough emotional leverage to persuade consumers to come along on the journey to a new energy future.
Our Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement study, now in its sixth year, focuses on the impact of brand on customer engagement for the utility industry, making Market Strategies-Morpace the undisputed leader in brand insights for utilities. Through this research, we’ve identified three elements of brand value for utilities:
- Enhanced pricing power via customer support for higher rates.
- Revenue growth by capturing market share for new product offerings not protected by the utility’s monopoly position.
- Lower risk of customer and load defection as customers consider distributed energy resources and dis-intermediators.
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This article is not about building the fundamentals for strong customer engagement: operational excellence, a strong brand and value-added product offerings. Instead, it’s about the moments that catch customers off guard—in a good way—and how utilities can intentionally create those moments in their customer interactions. These moments help support a solid customer experience strategy, and more importantly, help create advocates, as customers share with friends and family, “you won’t believe what my utility company did!”
1. Invite new customers into a relationship
My colleague Chris Oberle, senior vice president of the Energy Research and Consulting group at Market Strategies International, has written about the missed opportunity for customer onboarding. Two years later, only 8% of customers new to their utility recall receiving any sort of welcome or onboarding material. Continue reading
It is not a secret that energy utilities need to focus on strengthening customer relationships through brand and product efforts as brands like Tesla, Apple and Google are increasingly building consumer mindshare in the energy space. The good news is that utilities can reap dividends almost immediately by tapping into consumer demand for new energy technologies via a utility marketplace. Our energy industry research shows that utility marketplaces are the number one way utilities can improve their reputation and brand. In addition, marketplaces allow utilities to support demand-side management programs, improve customer experience and develop new revenue streams.
Customers nationwide feel they are getting less value from their utility. Perceptions of paying reasonable rates for the services received from a utility are at the lowest levels we have seen since the end of 2015, as tracked in the Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement: Residential (UTBCE) study.
A Stunted Understanding of “Value”
Many utilities are increasing their attention on improving consumer value perceptions. While some utilities have long had “value” as a key performance indicator (KPI), others are now in the process of updating their customer experience KPIs and looking at including “value” in corporate scorecards. However, in utility-land, “value” often reads as “price” (or “rates”)—an interpretation that hamstrings utility efforts to drive value perceptions by leaving a very important part of the value equation off the table. Specifically, “value” is a combination of two things, what you pay (where utilities almost exclusively focus) and what you get.
At Market Strategies, we’ve recently seen an uptick in utilities wanting to better define and manage their brand. I recently sat down with Claire Maglione, New Jersey Natural Gas’ (NJNG) manager of customer experience, to discuss how they’ve approached their brand work and why it’s important even for a regulated utility like NJNG. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Why is brand important to a regulated utility like New Jersey Natural Gas?
Claire: Typically, a company uses a brand to differentiate itself from competitors. For most energy utility companies, that doesn’t necessarily hold true. In our service territory, customers can choose their natural gas supplier, so in that sense there is competition, but they cannot choose the company who delivers it. For NJNG, the importance of brand is a matter of being viewed as a trusted source: to safely and reliably provide natural gas to homes and businesses, enable customers to easily conduct business, educate customers on energy-efficiency, make products and services both affordable and available and be a good community partner.
I recently sat down Don Hodson, head of customer experience (CX) at Georgia Power (GPC), to discuss how GPC is maximizing the effectiveness of its CX program. For energy brands that are working hard to create a positive, seamless experience for its customers, Don’s insight might just spark an idea that can be applied to your company’s strategy. Enjoy!
Can you explain GPC’s customer experience goals and the specific issues you’re trying to solve with research insight?
Don: Georgia Power has a strong reputation with our customers already so there is little value focusing on improving a customer sat score from 8.5 to 8.6. Rather, we look at all the interactions customers have with GPC—the channels they use, the issues they have—to identify where there are barriers to resolution or where we force them to make extra effort. Then we focus on how to mitigate those issues to reduce customer effort. Not only does this improve customer sat but, in many cases, it also identifies opportunities to decrease operational costs.
Solar roadways have captured the public’s imagination – see, for example, the viral “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” video produced by Solar Roadways and viewed more than 22 million times. And we certainly do use a lot of land for roads and parking lots – 61,000 square miles by some estimates. So why not use this space to also produce power?
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once attributed his uncanny ability to read plays to, “I skate to where the puck is going to be.” That concept applies to utility chief customer officers and CX professionals; those who are tuned into consumer expectation trends understand where their “puck” is going to be.
Cogent Reports’ Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement (UTBCE) study is designed to understand customer engagement from a holistic perspective encompassing brand trust, product experience and operational satisfaction, but this blog post offers a simpler framework for customer experience. First up is marketing, which allows you to tell your customers what they can expect of you as a utility. Second, and just as important, is the actual experience customers have interacting with you—and where they judge whether your marketing was truthful or just blowing smoke.
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:
Want to create more opportunities for women in energy? “Will and determination is all you need,” says Bjarni Bjarnason, CEO of Reykjavik Energy.
Ernst & Young’s 2016 “Women in Power and Utilities Index” reveals that women constitute only 23% of North American utility non-executive directors and 21% of senior management. While this leads the world (Europe comes in second at 23% and 12%, respectively), it is still nowhere near the 51% proportion of women in the overall population. Ernst & Young’s report also highlights why gender diversity is more than a moral imperative – they found that the 20 most gender-diverse utilities outperformed the bottom 20 by 1.07% in return on equity.