What Are (Our) Words Worth?

“What are words worth?” Tom Tom Club asked that in a catchy song from the 1980s. You probably danced to it in college. I know I did. But let’s not go there, because it was a very different time and place.

Instead, today, as utility communicators, let’s ask ourselves, “What are our words worth?” We know a poorly chosen word or phrase can be costly. Do we know how to value a well-chosen phrase?

Think about the last presidential election. Would Mitt Romney be president today if he hadn’t used the term “47%” to refer to those who were unlikely to vote for him? If he had reframed that sentiment as, “We know 53% of the American people agree with us,” could that have possibly changed the outcome of the election?

And if the verbal gaffe did indeed cost Romney the election, we know what that cost him personally: $1.6 million (four years as president at an annual salary of $400,000). Add to that sum the tens of millions of dollars of advertising spending wiped out by that one poorly chosen sound bite. Overall, a pretty costly verbal “Oops.”

Four years earlier, candidate Obama nearly made the same mistake when he spoke dismissively about people clinging to guns and religion during times of adversity. It didn’t cost him the election, but doubtless it cost him credibility among those who felt slighted by his words.

In the electricity business, Jeffrey D. Butler, former president and chief operating officer at Connecticut Light & Power, has a very good idea of what his words were worth: his job. In the midst of massive power outages resulting from Hurricane Irene in 2011, Butler told a news conference that CL&P’s electric rates would have to increase to recover the utility’s power restoration costs.

Butler said this while many CL&P customers were still in the dark. He resigned two months later after becoming a lightning rod for criticism. In addition to costing him his job, Butler’s verbal misstep could have torpedoed a multibillion-dollar merger between NU (CL&P’s parent) and NStar. If that had happened, Butler’s words could have been among the most expensive in history—far more costly than Mitt Romney’s rhetorical gaffe.

On the brighter side, some utilities are experimenting with different words and tactics in communicating with customers. For example, consider the perennially sensitive topic of high monthly bills. Utilities have handled this kind of call for more than a century, ever since the advent of electricity and telephones. Typically, the (factually accurate) response includes a discussion of the weather (heat and humidity, mainly) and fuel prices. But the facts are not likely to engage customers because neither they nor the utility can control the weather or fuel prices.

“How Much Electricity Do You Buy?”

So kudos to the utility communicator who, in discussing a high-bill complaint with a customer, conceded the customer’s bill might be too high. If that stunned her, she was completely floored by what came next: “How much electricity do you buy?” she was asked. She said she had no idea.

That creative choice of words opened up a whole new way for that customer to think about her electric bill. Now, it was no longer the utility’s fault for charging her such high rates. Her usage was now part of the equation, and the utility and consumer were not playing the “blame game.”

By reframing electric usage in more common consumer language—“how much do you buy?”—the utility communicator was able to help the customer understand her electric use the same way she understood her purchases of gasoline and breakfast cereal.

Given the arrival of summer and the inevitable onset of high-bill complaints, electric utilities might want to consider re-writing their high-bill complaint script to ask customers, “How much electricity do you buy?” Let’s see how that changes the conversation!

—John Egan is the founder and president of
Egan Energy Communications and a veteran electric utility communicator who contributes frequently to MANAGING POWER.

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