Do customers’ experiences with utilities matter? Customer experience expert Roy Barnes thinks so. At a conference in Washington, Barnes inspired the audience to improve their customers’ experiences at every touchpoint.

UTILITY CUSTOMERS are at this moment having mixed experiences, some good, some painful. When the customer experience is unmanaged it will eventually disappoint almost every customer. And when customers are unhappy it marginalizes the role of their utility in their energy decisions.  A positive relationship influences customers’ behaviors, and their behaviors influence utilities’ results on many fronts. Building that relationship takes a concerted effort. Just settling for decent satisfaction scores isn’t enough. How do utilities move beyond satisfaction to a broader kind of experience and engagement?

Roy Barnes

“Customer satisfaction is no longer relevant,” proclaims Roy Barnes, who has consulted with Duke and Avista on the subject of the customer experience. In a keynote presentation to energy efficiency professionals last week, Barnes explained that satisfaction is table stakes — when a company doesn’t satisfy customers it doesn’t keep them. “Imagine asking your spouse, once a year, to what degree they are satisfied!”

“In every industry, somebody is working very hard to get between you and your customer,” Barnes says. And often, in unexpected ways, they succeed. Example: The company who sells more cell phone minutes than AT&T, Verizon and Sprint combined is Wal-Mart.

Surprised? Those big mobile carriers certainly were. And how arrogant are utilities about similar threats? Being big and regulated doesn’t protect them, either, Barnes warns.

Blockbuster Video was a large, successful business with smart managers, yet it was swept into oblivion by Netflix. Now Amazon is eating Netflix’s popcorn.

Nest thermostats give residential customers more control over their comfort and energy use. Barnes, who owns one, says it has a great out-of-box experience including installation by appointment. And the user interface (designed by former Apple engineers) is fun.

“Is Nest standing between you and your customer?” Barnes asks. “Should utilities have some claim to what this does? I think so.”

THE CUSTOMER experience is the sum of all interactions a customer has with your company. And one issue can take a customer through multiple interactions as they’re transferred around the company.

“Customer experience is not random acts of niceness in one part of the company,” Barnes says. “It has to be everywhere, it has to be genuine, and it as to cross all touchpoints.”

It also helps if other utilities don’t create high-profile customer problems. Bad service by one company impacts everyone in the sector. Sometimes mistakes by one company bring new regulations on every player in the industry.

“When PG&E screws up the initial roll-out of smart meters, and people in tinfoil hats are on the news talking about how the utility is going to track their every move, your only defense is the purposeful establishment of a relationship with your own customers,” Barnes says.

A POSITIVE customer experience generates many benefits. For one thing, it’s significantly less expensive to serve a customer who’s happy. The cost of calls and truck rolls add up fast.

“You now need consumers to behave in ways that reduce your costs,” Barnes says. When utilities change the customer experience they change relationships and thus customer behaviors. “There’s a lot of money on the table here. What’s the financial impact to your utility if an extra ten percent of your customers sign up for e-billing?”

A prime example is increased customer participation in energy efficiency programs. “What percentage of your customers do you want to take advantage of the efficiency opportunities that are available to them?” he asks. Here’s his advice to utilities wanting to make that change:

  • Make honest and accurate promises about the customer experience they intend to deliver. “Don’t let one part of the company make up the fairytale experience only to have another part deliver a disappointing experience.”
  • Map all of the places where their customer interacts with their company — the customer touchpoints. In most organizations it will be 100 or more. “At every one of those touchpoints, emotions are created and the customer experience is being formed.”
  • Design a deliberate experience. “Every one of the touchpoints needs to provide your intended and stated experience.” Departments create parts of the experience, but only the customer experiences them all. Every department head should be managing the entirety of the customer experience.

“To do what you need to get done, you need to worry about the whole experience,” Barnes concludes. “Then when it comes time for customers to interact with your department, your results will be a whole lot better.”