As I read about the hot-button issues in the energy industry, it’s easy to get lost in a swirl of buzzwords and acronyms. These include CX (customer experience), DERI (distributed energy resource integration), TOUP (time of use pricing), RNG (renewable natural gas) and EVs (electric vehicles). While the current emphasis is to reach customers with technology, we must not lose sight of the human side of our business. For example, appreciate what a customer feels when they look out their window and see a line truck or backhoe uprooting their street.

As NorthWestern Energy’s superintendent of infrastructure construction, during the past six years I’ve overseen large upgrades across Montana. We’ve replaced hundreds of miles of underground power cable, old steel natural gas lines and rotting wooden power poles. In the process, I’ve learned that customers have a lot of expectations on the construction side of our business.

In this article, I list four practical strategies for turning a potentially upsetting utility interaction into one that builds loyalty. While it may lack the glimmer and shine of new mobile applications, we have found exceptional value in old-fashioned customer service.

View your utility through the eyes of the customer. Make sure your customers know what to expect ahead of time. Promoters of CX call it “mapping the customer experience.” For NorthWestern Energy, this meant developing a process for informing customers of our construction plans and project timeframes. For example, before replacing gas service on a block in Anaconda, Montana, NorthWestern Energy made a personal visit to every customer prior to starting work.

It is imperative to let the customer know the when, where, why and how of a project; and to convey that in a language they can understand. Avoid using construction jargon or utility lingo. If possible, meet individually with customers who may be significantly impacted by the project and give them an opportunity to share their needs and concerns. There’s no surer way of losing customer loyalty than by digging up pet graves, destroying prized roses and scattering Feng Shui rock gardens — all things that could be avoided by speaking to customers first.

Many people have unique requests that require us to work at inconvenient times or in less-efficient ways. While some requests may be cost-prohibitive and detrimental to the project, some are achievable, and time should be set aside to make this determination.

For example, when replacing an old steel gas line in Butte, Montana, we discovered a customer with limited mobility who needed to access his home from the alley. Our typical plans would require us to shut down his alley for two days while our backhoes dug. However, in this case, we met with the customer first and came up with a plan to close only half of the alley at a time. This plan allowed his car access to his alley garage so that he could enter his home when returning from work.

2 NW Customer ServiceByron Perrenoud of NorthWestern visits with customer Virginia Loran prior to starting a major pipeline replacement
project on her block in Montana. (Steven Schmitt, NorthWestern Energy)

Providing the customer with personal attention helps ameliorate a potentially contentious situation and, in the long run, the customer might just remember the cup of coffee you shared with them, rather than the inconvenience caused by the project.

As utility professionals, we are aware of things such as easements and hidden underground utilities. However, many customers are not. Consequently, we find mature trees, prized gardens and buildings over the top of our utilities. Our first instinct is to clear them and say to ourselves, “Well, they should have known better.” Do not lecture your customers. Instead, use this as an opportunity for positive personal interaction and to set proper expectations, even when you might have to deliver bad news.

Two years ago, when we were planning to install underground cables in Billings, Montana, the city objected to our route. Fearing that we would destroy a row of mature trees, they insisted we find a different path. With no viable alternative, we brought in an arborist to explain how our operation would pass safely underneath the root system and pose no threat to the trees. The city was appeased by our expertise and the route proceeded as planned.

In some cases, there may not be a good alternative. Having a landscaping professional or arborist help explain the situation could aid your customer interaction, as it did in Billings. When drastically trimming trees, consider going the extra mile by discussing other options with the customer such as removing the tree entirely and replacing it with a “utility friendly” tree. Proceed with care and restore the landscape to the customer’s satisfaction. If you set the right expectation, you might just leave your customer thinking that the process went much better than they hoped.

2 NW Customer CareAfter a bushing on an overhead transformer failed, hot transformer oil sprayed and settled on several backyards in Great Falls, Montana. NorthWestern helped customer LaVonne Gaskell replant her flower bed that was damaged by the spray. (Steven Schmitt, NorthWestern Energy)

In Great Falls, Montana, NorthWestern had to rebuild customer LaVonne Gaskell’s backyard after completing a project. The rebuild included a fence and two, raised flowerbeds. “I’m very pleased,” she said after the work was complete. “I think I’ve been treated fairly. I’m happy with everything and I can’t wait to see the irises bloom.” When done right, even these interactions can build loyalty.

After the work is complete, let the customer know you are finished and ask if they have any further concerns. If you significantly impacted the customer, meet them in person. This can uncover lingering issues. At the very least, it lets the customer know their concerns are important to you.

New technologies give us more ways to enhance our customer’s experience, but let it be just that: enhance. We still need to rely on person-to-person interaction to engage and empathize with our customers. Let’s not forget that beneath all these new innovations and expectations lies what we’ve known for ages: the bedrock of loyalty still depends on a firm handshake and good, old-fashioned, in-person customer service.