Editorial

The Utility Communications Spectrum – Finding what works

By Robin Gilthorpe

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As water industry observers recognize, utilities have historically considered themselves silent providers of service. In the past, customers would only choose to communicate with their utility in the case of frustration or dissatisfaction: A high bill; water quality concerns; a service outage. Thus utilities would often measure customer satisfaction by a lack of interaction with their ratepayers.

Consequently, and unsurprisingly, utilities have minimized communication with stakeholders on the theory that it is better not to attract too much attention. In the relatively infrequent cases when they have chosen to communicate, they generally use one of two modes:

  1. Pure broadcast: Blanket communications, using a single set of content for every message sent. Think billboards, bill stuffers, door hangers, static web pages, and, more recently, social media channels such as Facebook or Twitter. These approaches are undirected and largely ineffective, except in huge quantities. In marketing or sales parlance this approach is known as “spray and pray.”
  2. Pure point-to-point: Individual communications, which may be effective for any given individual, but impossible to scale due to the excessively expensive time & labor required to reach a large number of people. Think personal letters, personalized phone calls, and in-person visits.

These approaches represent opposing sides across a spectrum of communication options. It’s like either whispering or screaming. If you’re right next to someone (or really far away) these may be the only reasonable options, but it leaves out a large swath of middle ground that can be more efficient and effective.

While this model worked relatively well throughout the 20th century, modern, digital communication technologies now pervade our daily lives. End-users have come to expect transparency and immediacy when it comes to information access to most services. Mobile applications, real-time updates, threshold alerts, electronic payments – all of these capabilities are now commonplace across telecommunications, financial, health care, entertainment, and many other services we consume on a regular basis.

In addition, the traditional communication topics – billing, quality, programs, outages - don’t capture the full breadth of the customer lifecycle and thus leaves out many chances for the utility to positively engage customers on a range of other topics.

There are many other key moments, watershed moments, that are opportunities for utilities to build trust, overcome apathy, and build support among the customer base. Customer side leaks and billing moments are at the top of this list of opportunities to proactively communicate, but how can utilities do so in a broad, customized, and predictive manner in order to yield benefits to customers and service provider alike?

Utilities should - as other industries have discovered - be leveraging modern, digital technologies to formulate a balanced portfolio of communications. It is increasingly easy and affordable to deploy comprehensive customer tracking, segmentation, targeting, and communication platforms to achieve a range of interactions:

  • Automated, periodic communications at scale, with database-driven personalization tokens to make each communication unique to the needs of the individual customer. This can include regular water reports with consumption details and household specific recommendations for money saving actions.
  • Automated, targeted communications based on specific conditions such as water use patterns, weather events, boil notices, or scheduled service outages.
  • Semi-automated “narrow-cast” communications based on analysis done by utility staff and sent with a single mouse-click to dozens-to-hundreds of customers. These messages might be used to promote a new program, invite customers to join a community education event, or better understand infrastructure investments being made to improve water quality and system reliability.
  • User-selected pinpoint communications based on customer requests and needs. These are typically alerts and notification that have been requested by users around likely leaks, consumption thresholds, pending bills, or other, account specific detail.

Given that most customers are digitally enabled, these communications should be optionally delivered over a mix of channels including voice, text, email, mobile, and web, appropriate to the topic and urgency of the message.

Filling in the middle of the communications spectrum is not just what most customers expect - it is what is most effective and most efficient. Leading utilities are already proving that ensuring operational efficiency and stakeholder support for critical investments requires a modernized and orchestrated approach to communications. It is no longer beyond the scope of technological capability or budget for nearly any utility to take advantage of these new services. It does take some will and the appetite to change, but change is coming, so let’s all embrace this wave of change before it washes us away.


Posted in Editorial, personalized, targeted, persuasive, segmented, customer communication, digital

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