New products and technologies are changing how customers interact with their energy provider and have opened up opportunities to offer additional products and services designed to drive engagement, trust and revenue. The utility of the future will need to engage with customers through value-added products and services that go beyond simply providing reliable service, but how do utilities pivot from operating as a regulated monopoly to becoming innovative and inspired product marketers in a competitive landscape?
The good news for utilities is that they have abundant resources and capital to support new-product development. The challenge, however, is that they are accustomed to putting those resources to use within a very structured, regulated environment that is not well-suited to the free-thinking and “willingness to fail” ethos often required to successfully generate ideas and turn those ideas into new products and services. Simply put, innovation as well as product or service development requires a culture and skill set that many utilities lack.
Utilities should keep in mind three principles as they work to evolve into innovators and product marketers.
“And when you speak of me, speak well.”
As utilities seek to evolve their customer management performance goals beyond traditional customer satisfaction metrics, utilities are evaluating updated measures and management approaches that better reflect success in the transforming utility market—one of those is the Net Promoter Score, or NPS. The NPS metric is based on a question regarding the likelihood of a customer to recommend the company to others. The scale is 0–10 and based on the percentage of those posting a rating of 9–10 (Promoters) minus the percentage of those rating 0–6 (Detractors), and then multiplying the result by 100. The Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential (UTBCE) study has the most robust database to help utilities measure, benchmark and manage NPS. The study has been tracking NPS quarterly since 2016 and provides data-based analysis, modeling and insights to help utilities perform well on this metric.
The Core of the NPS Debate
For both the utility and the customer, there is confusion regarding why a customer would be compelled to “recommend” their regulated utility. If they want utility service, they use the utility. How can a monopoly motivate customers to recommend it? And, what is the value to the utility?
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.
“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
Henry David Thoreau
This month we are celebrating Earth Day with our annual designation of Environmental Champions for those utilities whose customers say their utility has exhibited dedication to the environment in our Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement study. What struck me most about this year’s findings is that customers think environmental improvements are a better investment and are not opposed to a utility rate increases related to such endeavors, at least more so than for improvements in reliability or service.
“Signs and symbols rule the world”
Brand Appeal measures customers’ positive feelings for a company based upon the claims and visuals the company has created to establish a unique market position. The brand equity that companies evoke in customers’ minds relate to added pricing power and preferred provider status. The first quarter of the 2018 Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential (UTBCE) study results are out and a new finding highlights 131 utilities’ Brand Appeal with their respective residential customers.
Brand Appeal Is in the Eyes of the Customer
Establishing high Brand Appeal enables utilities to engineer customer support and loyalty using design and color to shape a unique impression in customers’ minds. By asking respondents to rate their utility’s visuals such as logos and slogans, the UTBCE study has identified the utilities that have created the most appealing customer value propositions. Six utility brands rise to the top with a brand that invokes a high level of customer appeal. As utility customers select who they want to do business with, these six utilities are the likely winners with great brand equity and considered significantly more “ideal” than any other utility.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is catapulting the energy industry into a new era of products and services, and the demands and expectations of utilities are rapidly changing. According to the IDC, energy utilities are currently the third largest investor in IoT ($66 billion) and this will alter how these companies interact with their customers. As an 80’s kid, I am reminded of a memorable song by Stereo MCs entitled Connected. The song’s chorus goes:
If you make sure you’re connected,
The writing’s on the wall,
But if your mind’s neglected,
Stumble you might fall…
More than ever, our connections with people, places and things drive and define who we are and what we do. These connections are directly impacted by the IoT explosion across our society. Back in 2008, more “things” were already connected to the internet than there were people in the world, and the momentum of this trend has multiplied over the past 10 years.
We live in a world where consumer data are growing rapidly. Nearly every behavior on the internet is tracked, wireless devices constantly share our location and activities, and smart appliances disseminate troves of data into the ether. And, by some accounts, global data are expected to double every two years for at least a decade.
While this is not a new phenomenon, the impact is still hard to understand. Thanks to this explosion of data, many energy utilities have access to exponentially more customer information than just a few years ago, and this information is often used ineffectively, and in some cases, not used at all. From detailed demographic and profiling data, program participation histories, and rich behavioral data, the opportunities for market research insights are immense.
It’s no wonder that many utilities are looking to leverage these data to build custom online panels and Market Research Online Communities (MROCs) to support their research needs. Both offer a means of gaining quick and valuable insights without having to negotiate some of the more challenging aspects of market research, namely, sample preparation and respondent recruitment. Continue reading
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.
Does the average person shop for energy products through their utility? We know that customer preferences for shopping, particularly for Millennials and Gen Xers, is shifting toward online or mobile phone and away from traditional “brick and mortar” stores—51% of Americans think shopping online is the best way to shop (source: Big Commerce). But, how does that translate for utilities? Consumers embrace new products, adapt to new services more quickly and spend significant time researching and comparing online shopping options prior to making purchases. Product reviews and word-of-mouth opinions carry more weight than ever, and visual representations including product displays are expected to “come alive” during the purchase process. Such changing consumer behavior requires that traditional marketing tactics evolve to meet these shifting consumer demands, and utilities are not the exception. Continue reading