Regulated utilities still maintain an inherent advantage over alternative energy suppliers in holding onto their relatively steady pool of customers. But given the changing nature of the energy landscape, it’s more important to treat customers as a cherished asset using a customer care function that’s responsive, progressive and effective. By demonstrating operational excellence at the call center, utilities and energy suppliers can reinforce customer relationships and secure loyalty.

The modern utility as we know it rounded into shape in the 1920s, after increased regulation and delivery standardization took hold. Since then, except for the last decade or so, the end user’s relationship with their utility has remained essentially unchanged. The service (gas or electricity) was delivered, the monthly bill was paid and the occasional outage was resolved. Both service provider and customer knew their role and what was expected of the other.

That old way of doing business has morphed in recent years, and customer care representatives have had to expand their knowledge base and technological tools. The advent of energy choice through deregulation, technological advances in distributed generation (such as rooftop solar), and increased pressure to embrace renewable energy options have contributed to broader discussions and customer expectations.

For example, millennials are now paying their own energy bills, and they bring a certain set of values and expectations. In this internet age, they are accustomed to having quick access to providers using a variety of media channels. They want to talk at their convenience, wherever they are and whenever they’re ready. A service provider’s fundamental values and operational character is viewed through that lens — the efficiency with which a customer’s concerns are addressed and resolved.

Zeb Sims, general manager of EnergyCare, LLC, in St. Petersburg, Florida, sees an increased need of customers to feel heard.

“We find that customers want a closer relationship with their utility,” Sims said. “They want to be able to call, text or chat online when it’s convenient for them. They want to be able to reach a real person and even build a relationship with their customer service agents, who they expect to represent all operational aspects of their provider. We find that the customer is much less patient and wants to know their concerns are being immediately addressed, with a fast resolution. Responsiveness is more important than ever.”

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Millennials also have a greater awareness and concern for the environment and the promise of renewable energies. Many customers are demanding “green” energy and customer care representatives must now represent a variety of products and efficiency measures, which have been brought about through innovations or government mandates.

Many customers now have choices including rooftop solar, community aggregation, and other money-saving products and services from third-party providers. These developments further encroach on the old utility monopoly model and increase the pressure on front-line representatives to keep up.

There are four major points for utilities to concentrate on in order to improve their relationship with their customers:

1. Understand the customer journey. A customer’s interaction with a utility can be like taking a well-planned tour, or it can be like getting lost at sea. Customer-centric utilities guide their customers through a series of carefully planned-out interactions.

To effectively implement a successful customer experience strategy, utilities need to understand the three types of customer journeys:

a. Relationship
b. Transactional
c. Value Add

2. Provide adequate staffing to ramp up and ramp down, without damaging your customer service team. This has proven to be difficult for many utilities and can result in a great deal of lost financial investment in hiring and training.

3. Improve agent quality and retention. Your customer service agents need to be taught the mechanics of your system. They need to understand energy, the procedures and scripts for answering the phone, and how to navigate your customer relationship management (CRM) and performance-measuring procedures. In addition, the agents need to understand their organization’s products, services and specialties. For example, if you are a “green” utility, call center agents need to understand what renewable energy is compared to fossil fuels, how they are integrated into your business, and how you are using them to better serve customer expectations.

This may prove to be difficult in call centers where the voluntary turnover rate runs from 30 percent per year to as high as 95 percent. To improve retention, effective skills training must be employed. The length of new-hire training typically ranges from 40 hours to 12 weeks. After agents have been trained, they should be brought up to speed under close supervision.

Call center agents should also be treated as key members of the team. They need to be kept up-to-date on the utilities strategies, operational procedures and changes, and be rewarded for performance, increased skills and longevity.

4. Use technology and innovation to provide better customer service. Investing in customer service is the watershed decision between treating your customers like ratepayers or treating them like customers.

The utility that proves to be responsive to customer questions, complaints, or other needs can gain a clear competitive advantage and stand out from the increasing options customers have. With so many competitors now in the field, utilities need to understand how new technologies can help anticipate customer needs, tailor operation processes to best serve customers, and ultimately, improve efficiency. This can result in reduced costs for both the utility and the customer.