We live in a constantly evolving energy landscape. With increased emphasis on future sustainability and environmental awareness, many consumers are becoming more cognizant of their energy usage, and many utilities are perusing renewable energy initiatives themselves. With change on both sides, the relationship between utility companies and their customers is becoming more and more of a two-way conversation.
Utility companies are moving further and further away from the traditional idea of a centralized entity that pushes out energy in one direction. While today’s utility company is more decentralized, it still lives at the center of the grid. The utility facilitates microgrids, sustainable energy, and the ability for consumers to produce and manage their own energy. Therefore, utility companies and customers need to have an open line of communication.
At Unitil, a provider of natural gas and electricity serving customers in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, we see this conversation between customer and utility as crucial to the future of energy. As customer needs, behaviors, and preferences change, it’s our job to both meet those evolving needs and act as a knowledgeable advisor in pointing customers toward a sustainable future. We believe a paramount mission of utilities moving forward is to focus on the customer experience now more than ever before. Transparency and agency for customers are of the utmost importance so that customers can navigate evolving energy needs, and there are several ways to meet customers where they are and deliver value.
Cultivating the Customer Experience of the Future
Amid this constant energy evolution, our customers are interacting with us differently than in the past. Instead of simply receiving a bill in the mail once a month and paying it, many are actively seeking ways to cut down on usage and transition to more sustainable, resilient energy sources. Some, if they have solar panels for example, are already generating their own sustainable energy and sending it back to the grid, creating renewable energy solutions for others in their neighborhood. Others may just want to get a better understanding of their energy usage to see where they can cut costs.
It’s the utilities’ duty is provide guidance and knowledge on these matters. Regardless of the specific customer need, it is our job to step in and facilitate the conversation on the customer’s preferred channel, whether through our website, social media, email updates, or person-to-person interactions via our customer contact center. Through all of these channels, we commit to our best-in-class customer-centric mission that helps make energy more affordable and sustainable in the long run.
The Website as a Foundational Step in the Customer Roadmap
For utilities like Unitil, the company website has always served as an important customer touchpoint. The website is the company’s home base and one of the most frequent interactions with our customers. Websites serve as the window through which customers engage with their utility company, and for this reason, websites present a tremendous opportunity to build a foundation for the customer experience.
The website should serve as a roadmap for where customers can find a wealth of resources and tools. Features like time of use rate calculators and information on usage help customers manage, understand, and monitor changes in their energy usage. Utilities can also facilitate energy conversations with customers through targeted blog posts, energy efficiency opportunities, outage maps, and more. In creating a more transparent, knowledge-based platform, customers, utility companies, and the environment alike benefit.
In keeping with these goals, Unitil recently completed a ground-up redesign of our website, unitil.com. We kept the customer at the forefront of every decision we made as part of our commitment to cultivating the strongest possible customer experience.
The goal was to foster transparency and agency for our customers. Our research found that our customers wanted to be able to find tools to understand and manage their energy usage, so we set out to help customers better understand what has historically been an opaque relationship. That translated into our website design with more self-service features, a more streamlined navigation, a mobile-friendly interface, accessible design and back-end code, and more forms, features, and knowledge resources.
As a result, our customers and investors have been able to navigate the website more easily to find the information they seek—whether it’s exploring the newest energy innovations available to them or logging into their MyUnitil account to pay a bill. We see the website as our home base, and optimizing it is a crucial foundational step in building a stronger customer experience for the future. In the customer-centric future of energy, all utility companies should be thinking critically about their website and continuously listening to customers to improve and evolve the customer experience.
Building Relationships Through Social Media, Email, and Customer Contact Centers
While the website is a core pillar of the utility company’s customer experience, it’s important to proactively communicate with customers on their preferred channels as well. Modern technology has no shortage of ways to do so.
Social media serves as a valuable channel to have direct contact with customers in real time. At Unitil, we leverage Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook to efficiently disseminate bite-size updates on outage information, share thought leadership, or promote new energy initiatives to our New England customers near and far. Social media is also an approachable way for customers to engage with their utility companies about specific issues, as they can simply send a direct message, comment on a post, or reply to a tweet. We have found that social platforms provide a level of informality to the customer relationship that will be vital moving forward, especially with newer generations.
Email also remains a tried-and-true channel to strengthen our customer experience. Through email communication, we proactively reach out with more in-depth information or provide links that point customers to key resources on the website. Unlike social media, email also allows utilities to send targeted content to a specific group of customers, ensuring everyone feels they’re receiving purposeful, relevant communications.
We also make sure not to forget about person-to-person communication. Our customer contact center is still an important touchpoint and remains the preferred communication channel for many. Utility companies should prioritize staffing their call centers to reduce wait times and provide a human touch. Even as utilities modernize their customer experience, it’s critical to maintain consistency with traditional channels of communication.
The way people consume and generate energy is changing, and with it, the relationship between utility companies and their customers. As energy increasingly flows in two directions, it will be critical for utilities to also work to make their relationships with customers a two-way conversation. Unitil hopes to serve as an example for other utilities in our approach to building out avenues to engage and educate customers. The future of energy is transparency and knowledge, and utility companies need to facilitate discourse about evolving needs with customers to establish themselves as trusted energy advisors.
—Carol Valianti is Unitil’s vice president of Communications and Public Affairs. She brings more than 25 years of communications, branding, and marketing leadership to her role. Carol is responsible for the development and execution of Unitil’s customer experience strategies, including digital and traditional communications, customer communications, community relations, and the lead on crisis communications.