Social Media For Utilities Is Becoming Indispensable

on February 12, 2015 at 2:00 PM


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Utilities adopting social media as a public relations or customer service tool over the past few years may have intended to start out slowly but, in a number of cases, major storms that caused widespread service outages have thrust the companies into a rapid initiation even as they were still ramping up their tweeting and posting skills.

The use of social media for utilities is ingrained in how a utility thinks, said a representative of Edison Electric Institute. Aside from its proven worth in crisis management, utilities say that social media supports goals, including informing the public of infrastructure projects, energy conservation, safety issues and green energy investments. For utilities, social media is apparently blurring the line between communications and customer service.

Utility customers have come to rely on social media, too. “It has become a primary source of contact for many utility companies, and it’s increasingly important for improving customer satisfaction,” said Anna Lewis, Digital Content Specialist, Global Marketing & Communications for Black & Veatch. “More people are using Twitter or Facebook now to share their views or inquire about their utility service or to report an outage.”

Using Social Media for Reputation Management

Utilities are relying on the growing conversation sources as a reputation management tool. “Social media is an added customer service tool,” Lewis said. “Don’t think that if you don’t have a presence on social media people won’t share their views – they will establish a reputation for you even if you aren’t on there to share the facts. It’s a whole new level of customer service – very fast, very immediate.”

Ask Matt Rudling, the Director of Customer Services for UK Power Networks, the distribution network operator for the east and southeastern portion of England, including the greater London area, serving almost one-third of the UK population.

“Customers and other organizations’ customers talk about you on social media at your peril if you allow it to go on without responding,” Rudling said. “If lots of people were on line, tweeting ‘why is the power off tonight, it’s dreadful, where are you UKPN?’ then leaving that unanswered can make the situation go viral very quickly.”

Rudling pointed out that in 2013, another utility increased its rates and thought that the right thing to do would be to go on Twitter with a question and answer session.

“In one respect, you can admire their desire to be transparent – ‘energy prices are going up, and we’re here to answer any questions,’ ” he said. “But they were absolutely inundated with abuse.”

He said there have been examples where companies in similar situations have walked away from unhappy customers, and this has had an adverse impact on their brand. The important lesson is not to let customer views and inputs just sit out there and fester, added Rudling.

UK Power Networks joined Twitter in 2011, and started a question and answer service in 2013. The company also posts videos on YouTube and has a presence on Facebook and Linked-In.

In late 2013 and early 2014, UKPN experienced three major storms in quick succession with outages that stretched across several days each in October, on Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day. Its Twitter account was successful in deflecting inquiries from the call center and onto the website, helping improve the call center response time. Utility information was re-tweeted by other organizations, the media and individuals.

The Christmas storm generated an astounding 103 million Twitter impressions – an impression being a mention of the company that appears on someone else’s timeline. Rudling explained that the first impression went to the company’s 15,000 Twitter followers, then other news organizations and key influencers retweeted it and so on. And it was not just a single message – it was all of the messages sent out on Twitter under hashtag, or label, #UKStorm.

“That’s the real power of social media. You could never reach that number of people through conventional means. It’s just not possible,” Rudling said.

Data Mining Seen as the Path to Better Understand Customers

In early 2012, Public Service Electric & Gas Co. of New Jersey established a partnership between its customer operations and corporate communications departments to respond to customers who were contacting the utility through Twitter.

“This included all types of inquiries, not just those regarding outages,” said Tracy Kirk, Manager of Customer Technology. “We established information flows, our online tone and personality, and developed the close working relationships that allow us to be nimble,” she said. They were just in time for Superstorm Sandy, and their use of Twitter became an award-winning example of social media for crisis communications. PSE&G’s social media presence has expanded to encompass Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn.

“Social media is an increasing part of day-to-day operations and customer interactions. Our executives watch the conversations and often inquire about them,” Kirk said. “Field supervisors have been educating their workforces about the reality of being in the public eye every day. They also understand that customers often take to social media when traditional channels haven’t solved their problem, and we have a public opportunity to recover that customer and put our best foot forward.”

She said PSE&G is currently developing metrics to better understand the activity by looking at ways to integrate with other customer listening posts.

“Our technology roadmap includes looking at the right way to do social data mining and integrate with the customer relationship management system for improving customer service and our understanding of our customer base,” Kirk said.

Posting Photos to Communicate Storm Damage

Hawaiian Electric had just six months of social media experience when Hurricane Iselle hit the islands in August 2014, leaving customers in some areas without power for up to three weeks. As part of its on-line communications effort, the company took advantage of the photo medium Instagram.

“It was a good tool because a lot of people didn’t realize the impact of the aftermath, and the photos really helped tell the story,” said Donna Mun, Director of Online Communications for Hawaiian Electric.

Even companies that don’t have the utilities’ intense daily interaction with the public find social media to be valuable. Lewis said that Black & Veatch, for example, uses social media as “the megaphone” to help spread the word about the trends involving critical infrastructure.

“We actively create reports, articles and newsletters – and post them on social media – to help the utility industry look ahead at the changing environment of their markets. It is one more commercial channel,” Lewis said. “The thought leadership effort also aims at helping the public understand the vital issues at stake.”

Rudling of UK Power Networks said that his company is expanding its social media presence further. In about mid-2014, it went live with a web chat function that has become an integral part of the day-to-day service offering. The next step is video chat.

“You have a conversation while looking at each other as well,” he said. “Makes the service a little more personal.”

Story by Samuel Glasser, Black & Veatch 

Published originally on Black & Veatch Solutions