November 13, 2014

3 Things Utilities Can Learn From Iconic Brands

At this year’s E Source conference, E Source shared their “Power Walking” video, which provided some interesting (and funny) insights into how Americans feel about their utility. It’s clear from the video that not everyone sees their utility in a positive light. In fact, according to Accenture, 76% of consumers don’t trust their utilities.

There are two key takeaways from the video that might explain why. First, several of the folks interviewed felt that their utilities don’t find it worthwhile to improve their customers’ experiences since the utilities don’t have any direct competitors.

Second, consumers don’t compare their experiences with their utility to other utilities, they compare them with their experiences with companies in other industries. The participants in the video specifically mentioned Patagonia, Tesla Motors, and Apple as companies they’d like their utility to emulate. While these companies are all in different industries, utilities can learn three valuable lessons from them about customer experience strategies to become more likeable to customers.

Be Transparent

Patagonia is loved by its customers for its commitment to corporate social responsibility. Although many big companies claim to be “socially responsible,” Patagonia takes this a step further by making its supply chain public. It even has a map on its website listing all of the farms, textile mills, and factories it uses for production, so anyone can see exactly where specific Patagonia products come from and verify that those products were produced with sustainable materials and manufactured in safe facilities. Possibly the most important time for utilities to be transparent is during power outages. According to J.D. Power and Associates:

  • 82% of utility customers want to be contacted proactively by their utilities about power outages
  • 75% of customers want their utility to provide a “best guess” of when their power will be restored, and 49% want to know when maintenance crews have been dispatched
  • 57% want to know the cause of their outage
  • Customers who visit their utility’s outage maps during extended outages rate their utility 52 points higher in satisfaction than customers who don’t

Some utility customers have unrealistic expectations when it comes to keeping power running all of the time. However, by being transparent about outages and keeping customers informed through channels such as social media, outage maps, and text messages, utilities can substantially increase customer satisfaction.

Southern Company sets a great example of transparency during outages by providing customers of its subsidiaries – Georgia Power, Gulf Power , Mississippi Power and Alabama Power – with mobile-optimized power outage maps, mobile apps and automated email, voice and text message alerts. Using these tools, customers can report outages, view outage information, and get estimated restoration times at their convenience. The Georgia Power and Gulf Power outage maps became vital for customers to report outages and get information during several devastating storms that caused hundreds of thousands of outages in early 2014. Southern Company’s outage communication system was also recognized with a Gold Award for Outage Communications at EMACS 2014.


Although there have been exciting advances in mobile technology and the “internet of things” over the past few years, utilities have been slower than companies in other industries to use these new technologies to improve their customer communications strategies. Similar to utilities, car companies in general have been slower than most industries in applying new technologies to automobiles.

An exception to this trend is Tesla Motors. A major aspect of Tesla’s innovation is its battery capabilities. Using a 240V wall outlet, eight hours of charging is enough for the Tesla Model S to drive 140 miles, and only costs the driver $5.64, based on a national average electricity cost of $0.12 per kilowatt hour. Once Tesla’s new Gigabit battery facility is up and running, Tesla batteries will be produced on a much larger scale, which will enable the company to offer a $35,000 car model.

Tesla’s car specs are impressive, but perhaps a more important aspect of Tesla’s business is the creation of a new infrastructure of charging stations across North America, Europe, and China. These stations are free for Tesla owners, and it only takes 20 minutes to charge a battery to 50%, which is 16 times faster than public stations. According to Tesla’s website, by the end of 2015, these stations will allow 98% of the USA and Canada’s population to drive from coast to coast. Before Tesla, buying electric cars was not practical for many consumers because of the lack of efficient charging stations. By creating their own ultra-efficient charging facilities, Tesla has taken driving range out of the potential buyer’s decision process.

Vermont utility company Green Mountain Power (GMP) sets a great example of innovation for utilities. Recently, GMP has been testing a new mobile app and gateway device combination to give its customers an enhanced ability to manage their home’s energy use. Using the app, GMP customers can view their energy use in real-time, and even control electric appliances and lights connected to the gateway device. While this technology is still in the trial phase, it’s exciting to see how utilities like GMP are innovating to improve their customer interactions.

Prioritize User Experience

It’s hard to think of a company that prioritizes user experience more than Apple. Thirty years ago, Apple produced the first commercially successful graphical user interface (GUI) for personal computers. The GUI used a desktop metaphor where files were represented by pieces of paper that were placed in paper folders, making the system very easy for non-tech-savvy consumers to use. From innovating with early GUIs to revolutionizing the smartphone, Apple has been the classic example of keeping user experience intuitive and simple.

Utilities can directly apply Apple’s design philosophy to their customer communications strategy by embracing technology that allows their customers to easily accomplish their goals. Consider a customer who is experiencing a power outage. Their first step is probably to report the outage to their utility. Instead of calling in, being put on hold for several minutes, and then finally speaking with a call center representative, many consumers would opt to report an outage by sending a text message or using a mobile app, an interaction that takes minimal effort and about 30 seconds to complete.

NV Energy lets customers view and pay bills with the same type of interaction. Customers send a text message to a special shortcode requesting their account information, and can authorize a payment with another text message. These types of interactions not only increase customer satisfaction, but can also significantly reduce operating costs for utilities from handling customer calls.