Navigant Research Blog

How Utilities Can Improve Their Public Images

Richelle Elberg — May 1, 2014

In my previous blog, I discussed the difficulties that electric utilities face in fostering positive public perception.  While a monopoly electric utility didn’t necessarily have to fret endlessly over customer satisfaction 50 years ago, that simply isn’t true today.

As William Pentland wrote recently on Forbes.com, “To remain sustainable in an era of aging infrastructure, heightened service-level expectations, shifting views of social and business risk, the monopolies that call themselves investor-owned electric utilities and the state commissions charged with regulating them depend on the public’s confidence that the system is providing adequate service, protecting public health and safety and managing infrastructure costs efficiently.”  (Emphasis added.)

That may require a new mentality on the part of utility executives.  Here are a few simple ways that utilities can improve their customer engagement and public perception:

  • Social media:  If Facebook can help foster a revolution in Egypt, you better believe it can have a meaningful impact on how your utility is perceived — for better or worse.  Many utilities already leverage social media for communication with their consumers, but don’t make it all about the outages.  Proactive, positive reinforcement of what a utility is doing for its ratepayers should be constant on outlets like Facebook and Twitter.  Most consumers toss their paper bill inserts in the trash without a second glance, but they read their Facebook and Twitter walls religiously.  Contests, giveaways, and other incentives can be used to attract friends and followers.  Social media is free and easy — use it.
  • Regular, timely communications:  Even the appearance of brushing dirt under the carpet during a negative event (outage, accident, environmental fiasco) will undo months of tweeted goodwill.   This is the age of instantaneous communications and the public expects to know what’s happening — and what you’re doing about it — within minutes of an event.  The public will be eminently more forgiving if it believes that it’s been kept aware of what happened and why — and how the utility plans to prevent a similar accident from occurring in the future.
  • Promote renewables: Keep the public informed about the renewable capacity your utility is adding and, importantly, make sure it understands the costs of that transition.  Solar and wind power are popular, but they’re not the nirvana that the public perceives.  Help educate consumers about where and when renewables make sense and where they don’t.  Also, be proactive about informing your customers about how decommissioned coal generation sites are being handled and what’s being done to minimize the environmental impact.

Excellent consumer engagement analytics programs are available to help utilities with these efforts, including solutions that can help slice and dice your customer base and target each segment with the most effective promotions based on income, location, usage patterns, and a whole host of other demographic characteristics.  Navigant Research’s report, Smart Grid Data Analytics for Consumer Engagement, provides a deep look at these tools.

Effective customer engagement and communication may very well have a deeper impact on the utility industry’s long-term success than the billions of dollars in smart grid technology now being deployed.

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