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Customer Service in the Energy Sector: Be the Heart, Not the Cart

Utilities are learning how to build relationships with their customers after decades of one-way interaction. It used to be, you send the bill, you push out the power. If there’s a problem, you fix it, then you send the bill again and push out the power. Things were simple as long the lights came on.

In the new era of energy, customer needs are expanding. The lights don’t just have to turn on, they have to turn on at a competitive rate, be powered by clean energy, and supported by people who can provide advice around ways to embrace sustainability and use less energy. The energy sector is kind of in the business of talking people out of its business — e.g., “We’re selling power, but don’t use too much power!” This means having to rethink revenue streams in order to remain profitable in the future.

Luckily, we know that customers are open to the utility being more than just a power company. They’re actually willing to spend money on products and services that are related to the ways they use power in their homes, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for the power company to suddenly pivot to an “all things power-related” retailer. Resist the urge to immediately start selling things, and take it slow by setting the stage. This means re-thinking how you look and feel in the marketplace. Marketing materials, customer service interactions, your presence (or the lack thereof) within the community — all of this is up for interpretation by your customers, who will form an impression of you based on way more than whether or not the lights turn on. As a power company, you’ll need to work hard to convince your customers you no longer see them as “ratepayers,” or as “customers” coming to you for other services. Between “ratepayer” and “customer” is the most important piece of this new puzzle: People. Who they are, what they need, how you can help, and how you share that message authentically while building this new relationship.

Simply put, “be the heart, not the cart.”

Customers need to know the new you before they shop the new you.

Start with segmentation

Your customer base is vast, with a variety of demographics and socioeconomics at play. Some of your customers may be aware of what you offer beyond basic utility products and services, while others may have no idea. Before any outreach can happen, it’s important to understand who you are talking to. Segmentation can be broad — talking to homeowners as one group, small business owners as another, etc., or it can be more defined — for example, you might group customers from one geographical location together based on the unique needs in that area. This goes beyond simply grouping people together based on zip codes or age groups — it’s about examining the key factors that shape and define your segments. It takes good old fashioned “roll up your sleeves” work to get great segmentation, but it’s worth the effort when you know your messaging will resonate with customers and move them to take action.

Shift the perception

Now is the time to think about how you want to portray the “new you.” We already know you’re not the same old utility, so how do you convey that to your customer base? Talking about energy efficiency, for example, should combine the idea of matched ROI in the long run and cost savings with the idea of enhancing a customer’s overall quality of life. You want to use energy efficiency as way to tell your story, not make your sale. Remember – you’re no longer just a utility company selling power — you’re selling an energy experience.

Say the right thing

Once you’ve determined who you’re talking to, and how you want to be seen by each audience, you must determine what they need to hear from you in order to be relevant in their world (beyond keeping the lights on). Remember, you’re starting a “relationship” with your customers for the first time — if you were courting another person romantically, you would spend time figuring out what that person was about before starting a conversation. Your customer base is no different — for example, what do low-income families in rural neighborhoods need to know about you versus millennial renters in the city? How do you translate “an energy experience” to one group versus another? This is where messaging can become tailored to each segment’s unique needs, thereby inspiring people to take action (i.e. make a purchase for your products and services).

Not sure if you’re ready to navigate your narrative alone? Our energy and sustainability experts can help. We know how to determine your uniqueness, analyze your specific region’s audiences, build your story, share it with your customers, and help you move forward on the new energy frontier. Contact our team leader, Stephanie Crockett, to learn more.