An excellent customer experience focuses on humanity
At Unitil, the emphasis is on the future and a strong mission
Twenty-five years ago, there was less of a need for utility companies to act as strategic advisors to their customers. Energy was simpler then; there were fewer options for electric and gas usage, and customer questions were invariably about payment options. When customers had questions or issues, they simply picked up the phone, as that was the only communication option available.
Today, as the grid modernizes and customers face an increasingly complex energy landscape filled with diverse sustainable options, we believe the utility can serve an important role as trusted advisors to customers. With customer-utility interactions expanding well beyond simply paying bills, we believe we can provide customers with convenient avenues to seek counsel and get their queries answered as part of the complete customer experience.
An excellent customer experience is guided by both a future-focused company vision and a strong mission. For Unitil, that aspirational vision is to help customers evolve their energy usage to thrive within a future state of sustainable energy. The guiding mission is to provide safe, reliable, sustainable and affordable energy to customers each day.
However, organizations can’t fulfill their long-term vision if they aren’t executing on their primary mission on a day-to-day basis. To do this, it is critical that the approach to customer experience is not only human-first and focused on connecting with our customers on their preferred communication channel, but also backed by actionable and measurable goals and initiatives.
Best-in-class customer service leads with empathy and an authentic desire to help others. When compassion and caring are part of the fabric of a company and its employees, it shines through into the customer experience.
Making excellent customer service an organizational pillar requires buy-in from the top down. That means customer experience must be a demonstrated priority for senior leadership and be a key aspect of training. Additionally, organizations should invest in fun and thoughtful work cultures for employees. When employees feel cared for, they’re more likely to pay it forward.
The pandemic served as a proof point for the importance of our human-first culture and initiatives. We doubled-down on our customer-caring efforts, shifting to remote work without interrupting service and identifying ways to provide support and flexibility to customers in need. We also launched the Unitil Customer Assistance and Recovery Effort (U-CARE) Fund, which provided $150,000 of direct utility assistance to customers impacted by Covid-19-related job loss or reduced wages. And when we opened up the fund to our employees to make additional donations, they contributed an additional $25,000. Our employees’ compassion and desire to uplift others was palpable, and as a result, we saw higher customer satisfaction scores as compared to before the pandemic.
Organizations should build a strategic customer experience road map that identifies goals and guides initiatives for the months and years to come. Employees should then undergo customer experience training in alignment with the road map and established goals. In a service industry, it’s critical that this training is completed throughout any department that interfaces with customers, not just the customer service teams.
At Unitil, we track bill accuracy success rates, which are measures that encompass both the accuracy and the timeliness of the bill. It’s also important for us to measure the speed at which customers can get their questions answered by a customer service representative. Is there an FAQ that’s easily navigable on the website? How long is the average chatbot interaction, and are they successful in addressing customer queries?
The most useful metrics come from the customers themselves. We send out surveys where customers can rate their satisfaction with our service on an 11-point scale. This enables us to keep a pulse on the customer experience and identify opportunities for improvement to stay true to the established road map and goals. Our most recent customer surveys over the past three years showed customer satisfaction ratings that all exceeded 90 percent, a number that places us at the head of the class among regional peers and in the top quartile nationally.
Guided by the two main pillars above, the customer experience within the utilities sector will continue to evolve to meet the demands of a complex energy landscape. Utilities are continually brainstorming new ways to meet customer needs and streamline interactions.
In the near future, we could see the evolution of the energy marketplace into a platform beyond an e-commerce site where customers can find greener lightbulbs, thermostats, EV chargers, etc. The energy marketplace 2.0, which would serve as a one-stop information hub, could help customers not just make greener purchases, but also identify what rates they qualify for, make proactive recommendations on rate classes, or even connect them with local contractors to install new technologies.
By establishing trust and putting equal priority on the company vision and mission, utility companies can craft a truly excellent customer experience.
Mark Lambert is vice president of customer operations for Unitil Corp.