Hahn Public recently conducted a nationwide study of 686 customers with a water, electric or natural gas advanced meter. The 70-question survey provided a wealth of information when it comes to customers perceptions of their utility providers, and the services the utilities offer, including advanced metering and customer usage information via an online portal.
One thing we’ve found over the years is utilities can be hesitant to proactively communicate with customers about anything other than monthly statements and savings tips. Any organization should be thoughtful and strategic in communicating with customers. As long as the message is relevant and useful, there’s nothing to fear. Advanced metering projects in particular provide the perfect opportunity to open the lines of communication and build customer trust.
Based on customer feedback, most utility companies communicate with customers around one to two times per month (67.9%) – typically through their monthly statement (64.4%), followed by emails (37.9%). In today’s digital-first world, it’s no surprise that when asked their preferred method of communication*, the majority of customers cited email first, followed by their monthly statement.
Regardless of how your utility communicates, our research indicates increased frequency is your friend. More specifically, our findings tell us that as communication increases, so do perceptions of utility goodwill and usefulness of advanced metering technology.
This tells us customers are positively influenced by more frequent communication. On that same note, customers are essentially saying they want to hear from their utility companies, so if you aren’t communicating much, you’re missing out on opportunities to build that goodwill.
While there are obvious operational benefits and efficiencies achieved with new technology that benefit customers, most are focused first and foremost on cost. But advanced meters don’t necessarily automatically result in decreased bills or increased energy efficiency. The real benefit to customers lies in what they do with the newly available information from their advanced meter.
The majority of customers surveyed said their bills decreased (33%) or stayed the same (47%) because of the new meter, and that rates decreased (24%) or stayed the same (52%) because of the new meter.
We didn’t research each of the utilities to see if their rates and/or bills had actually decreased or remained the same – it actually doesn’t matter. What we measured was customer perception of how advanced meters affected bills and rates. Based on the response, there are major wins for the utilities that are going unnoticed.
Combined with the perception of your utility’s goodwill, the perception of your utility’s efficiency is a strong predictor of customer trust in your utility. Utilities should be harnessing these positive aspects of their businesses and sharing the real stories and testimonials from customers who believe they benefitted from new technology.
One strategic and creative way to do this is through an online storytelling platform, similar to a blog or online magazine. Customers can demonstrate how the new technology helped them lower bills, detect leaks, and more. Then, you can share those stories in a customer e-newsletter and on social media to drive traffic and increase your reach.
In addition to our findings on communication frequency and utility perceptions, we found customers who were aware of having a customer portal to view their water, electric or natural gas use find it useful and would recommend it to their friends and family, but approximately 30% of customers who took our survey were not sure whether or not their utility offered such a portal.
Nearly 90% of those aware of having a customer portal agree or strongly agree the portal enables them to monitor their use more frequently, and 77% agree or strongly agree the portal helps them save on utility bills. But, we found no relationship between perceived usefulness of the portal and perceived credibility of the utility. This tells us there is a missed opportunity by utilities to connect their organizations with a very positive customer benefit.
One option to leverage this goodwill is to brand the customer portal for your utility. By using the branded name in all messaging, and on the portal itself, the utility can help ensure customers associate the two – particularly the benefits of having added information and control over their energy use.
In the public utility industry, trust in your organization and credibility are key. As you undergo major projects such as advanced meters, don’t be afraid to take some credit for them and showcase the good work you are doing.
*respondents could select any/all methods of communication.