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Utilities are entering a new era of customer engagement, spawned by the growing connected device market. To be successful and sustainable, utilities should focus on creating a simple and personalized dialogue with each customer – a concept that could be described as the “Customer of One.”

Technology plays a pivotal role in this manner and has undoubtedly provided utilities with keen insights and communication tools. Utilities are now placing more emphasis on owning the complete customer relationship and meeting satisfaction goals. They also see increasingly connected customers as playing active roles.

“The challenge comes in delivering the right kind of experience for each customer, regardless of platform,” said Paul Rice, Principal Consultant for Black & Veatch’s management consulting business.

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Customer Engagement

What Customers Seek

Numerous factors influence customer opinion of their utility – call center responsiveness, bill accuracy, and, above all else, service reliability, Rice said. But the prevalence of connected devices has given customers new standing as perceived partners in the power delivery process. Social media is a powerful feedback tool, as well as a cheap information dissemination tool in times of crisis. Mobile apps allow customers to pay bills and gain insights about their consumption habits.

“Choice, flexibility, real-time information, personalized insights, and high levels of customer service are prized and expected – creating both challenges and opportunities for utilities,” Rice said. “Utilities must start with the customer, and define their strategies and goals from this perspective if they are to be successful.”

He said a simple truth about how most customers view the role of today’s utility could be summarize as: Be transparent, be responsive, and run reliably in the background.

Utilities Seek True Partnerships

Utilities clearly crave a true partnership with customers. According to the 2016 Black & Veatch Strategic Directions: Smart City/Smart Utility report, nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated their utility seeks direct ownership of the customer relationship.

Such positioning has far-reaching implications, said Jeremy Klingel, Managing Director for Black & Veatch’s management consulting business. For instance, with rising numbers of customers adopting self-financed renewable energy and distributed energy resources, utilities are very interested in developing partnerships that sustain their role in service delivery over the long term, Klingel noted.

In addition, more than two-thirds of respondents said that frequent, sustained customer engagement is a high priority of their utility. In fact, more than 13 percent said it was the organization’s most important goal. The data suggest growing interest in resource and staff investments by utilities to accommodate these aims. Corporate communication, social media and marketing wings are becoming standard for organizations whose customers engage across multiple platforms. This makes it easier to develop the “Customer of One” message.

“Customers are raising the bar for the companies with which they choose to engage,” Klingel said. “They have higher expectations than ever before, and that is unlikely to change.”

Technology in Action

Anecdotes abound of responsive engagements between utilities and customers, episodes that underscore the utility’s leadership role while demonstrating its commitment to meeting customers wherever they are. When a wind storm lashed the northwest U.S. in November 2015, a prominent utility created a Twitter hashtag that kept residents updated through a prolonged outage that cut power to roughly 1 million people.

In another example, a number of utilities across the country have begun implementing text alert notifications to proactively inform customers of a power outage at their residence, including estimated repair time. They then send a follow up text when power is restored. This seemingly small change to how they engage customers is having a significant impact on customer satisfaction.

“By receiving a text that acknowledges the outage and providing customers with helpful information, it is turning what is typically one of the largest detractors to customer satisfaction – power outages – into an engagement opportunity that contributes to a more positive experience,” Klingel said.

Coupling New Communications Tools with Legacy Channels

Reaching customers remains an “all-channels” exercise that utilities must prioritize and balance based on budgets and other resources. Traditional platforms – such as direct mail, phone and web-based self-service channels – remain dominant vectors for utilities to connect with customers. The importance of those legacy streams, coupled with the rising relevance of social media and versatile mobile apps, reflects the variable demographics that most utilities experience.

“This situation requires utilities to be in nearly all communication technology spaces,” Rice said.

One of the most significant challenges facing utilities over the next few years will be creating a cohesive and centralized customer engagement experience, with more continuity across services and products.

Today, many of the tools, systems, products and processes in place to serve customers are standalone and fragmented. Bringing these pieces together, Rice noted, to create a single point of engagement with the customer – and creating a simple customer journey that sustains engagement – will be necessary to build and maintain the customer relationship.

Published originally on Black & Veatch Solutions.