At best, public meetings between utilities and their customers provide a level playing field where information can be shared, doubts answered and future plans revealed. However, unlike government agencies, private utilities don’t have a requirement to hold such meetings, and can therefore miss key opportunities to engage with customers. This reluctance or outright avoidance often comes down to one factor: uncertainty.
Public meetings, if not planned and run meticulously, can dissolve into rancor. An agenda can derail as customers voice grievances or one unpopular announcement can overshadow any others. An often-raised criticism of public meetings is that all sides don’t always get a fair hearing. Lost opportunities for feedback happen when government officials lecture the crowd with no room for feedback or if only the most confident or loudest audience members do all the talking.
Not all news will be well-received, audience reactions will vary, unexpected or uncomfortable questions will be asked. However, these tips are aimed at helping companies create a setting to maximize communication and efficiency.
1. Allow Customers To Change Agenda
Posting the agenda, time and place of an upcoming meeting ahead of time stems from the most basic of concepts. For many utilities, once they finalize an agenda internally, it’s set in stone. This prevents real and essential interaction with customers outside the limited time frame of a Q&A session.
A good agenda should include two phases. First, the organization should reveal and post initial topics for discussion 4-8 weeks before the meeting, depending on their importance and impact. Second, customers should be allowed and encouraged to suggest amendments, additions and alterations through a dedicated email service or form on the utility’s website. Should customers be willing to identify themselves (see point 4 below), this also provides a good list of names to call on in a crowd.
2. Online Surveys Pay Off
As part of the same customer outreach mentioned in the previous point, engaging customers with surveys before and after meetings can help clear up any doubts among utility staff. The public usually receive such surveys only when relating to customer satisfaction. These can then become lightning rods for criticism and pent up resentment.
Polling customers with accessible yet engaging questionnaires allows utilities to be proactive in issues ranging from price hikes, social obligations, willingness to pay and a plethora of others. These results, in turn, can make setting a relatable agenda far less challenging.
While hiring an outside expert to design said survey may add more costs and time, this can also be a very valuable improvement.
3. Read A Room’s Layout
The layout of a room can reveal a lot about how an organization conducts a meeting. Utilities should scope out and research possible venues ahead of time for this reason. Having executives up on stage and the audience down below can make the audience feel like you’re talking down to them. However, having no platform at all can result in customers in the back craning their necks to follow proceedings. A flexible area allowing for different arrangements around tables or in circles is becoming a preferred choice for many organizations. This may seem trivial, but the impression of closeness between a utility and customers is a key visual.
4. No Signing In
Having a list of attendees and their contact information can help a utility with the follow-up, establish a mailing list, and ensure those who want to speak can do so. This makes leaving out the sign-in sheet seem counter-intuitive. However, this is essential for crowd control. While die-hard regulars committed to an issue will attend most meetings, other topics bring in larger crowds who may simply want to listen anonymously.
Voluntary, clearly expressed sign-ins make up part of a well-established rule for government-organized meetings. It’s not good for anyone to have people leave or frustrated before they even enter the room.
5. Customer Review Panel
Customer review panels (such as the success of Seattle Public Utilities) allow for core members of the customer base to keep an eye on the utility’s plans and ensure promises are put into action. In return, they can communicate effectively with a broader community on specific issues that can’t be explored fully in the limited time of a public meeting.
6. Involve The Press
The pressures on local beat reporters can be very useful for utilities. They need to fill column inches regularly and often hunger for fresh content. In fact, local papers still get more readership than national dailies.
Utilities may feel frustrated when media boil down a policy announcement to its more sensational or simple core. However, knowing that the discussion at a public meeting will circulate far more broadly makes the meeting more relevant. What’s more, ignoring the press or believing their presence doesn’t matter may easily create the perception that the utility is afraid of the press.
These tips rely around a common theme: don’t obfuscate. Any attempt to mask indecision or concern about criticism behind an unwillingness to engage will lead to a customer backlash. Utilities cannot expect a bulletproof relationship with customers. Tariff hikes, policy changes, and more will naturally lead to occasional concern. Public meetings meticulously prepared with care and commitment can go a long way to smoothing the way.