Sentiment of the Week: Disbelief in the Utility Industry

By: Elizabeth Clor

April 10, 2015

Tags:
Sentiment Analysis

It’s not surprising that utilities are late to the customer experience party. A highly regulated industry without competitive drivers, the utility industry has only recently begun to recognize and embrace the value of a satisfied consumer. Utilities have traditionally referred to their consumers as “rate payers” with little, if any, focus on their journeys and experiences in regard to energy use.

This week, we explore the common needs, wants and feelings of utility consumers, and how utility companies can raise the bar on customer experience.

Behind the curve

As recently as 10 years ago, telecommunications companies and retail banks were nearly as difficult to work with as utilities. Because switching providers was such a hassle, these other industries weren’t under pressure to retain customers and prevent churn. Now, it’s relatively easy to switch between banks and wireless providers, so these companies have upped their game.

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Based on our analysis of Facebook comments above, sentiment for utility companies is substantially lower than for wireless companies and retail banks.  The efforts of retail banks to improve customer experience is readily apparent, as their overall sentiment average is nearly neutral compared to the solid negative score of utilities overall.

At Clarabridge, we see retail banks and wireless companies investing heavily in customer experience management—specifically in the area of Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs. Verizon Wireless, for example, analyzes customer feedback data from over 50 sources to gain a single view of the truth across the business. They use this data to make real-time improvements and deliver a superior customer experience.

We’re also seeing many retail banks with mature customer experience programs. 10 years ago, banks were perceived as difficult to work with, and provided little value beyond the basics of holding money. Today, banks are paying close attention to customer feedback, catering to the needs and wants of various customer segments, and engaging with them over multiple channels.

“Utilities are facing new challenges, including the rise of solar and distributed generation, and lower demand — and the status quo is no longer sufficient,” said Timur Hicyilmaz, Director of Consumer Insights at Opower, a company that uses big data analytics to help utilities engage their consumers. “At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to companies to provide the kind of effortless, one-click service offered by the likes of Amazon, Uber, and other cutting-edge providers,” added Hicyilmaz.

The ROI of a happy utility customer

As deregulation and distributed generation are just beginning to pose a threat to U.S. utilities in terms of churn, utilities can recognize immediate value through call center efficiencies. Retail banking and wireless providers already show a major edge compared to utilities in deflecting support comments.

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Based on our analysis of social media comments above, utility companies have far more complaints around follow-up, runaround, pricing, and agent communication skills than wireless companies or retail banks. Additionally, hold time comments are nearly double for utilities compared to wireless providers and retail banks. If utilities improved their customer experience through additional website or advisory services, call volume would decrease, providing significant cost reductions.

Examples of comments:

“I found out that Con Edison was billing me for the wrong meter.”

“Our service was cut off with no warning – no letter, email, phone call.”

“After finally switching to a lower rate with a different company I received a huge bill with the disconnect fee and the remainder of the average billing balance.”

At Clarabridge, we’re seeing businesses in other industries deflect calls and reduce handle time through:

  • Improved self-service tools
  • Monitoring trends and spikes in conversation topics and proactively addressing them
  • Identification of top call reasons and corresponding call durations, and training the agents on how to quickly address those issues

Beyond the call center, improving customer experience will be a priority for utility companies as competition and choice increases. Compared to wireless providers and retail banks, utility customers were 257% more likely to mention churning if there was an alternative provider.

“Utilities need to put their customers first—they need to capture their customers’ attention at critical moments, and exceed their expectations,” said Hicyilmaz.

In Europe, utility customers have more choice than those in the U.S. As such, one of the largest utility companies in Europe, serving over 10 million customers, is highly focused on customer experience to increase customer satisfaction and prevent churn. They’ve identified 5 customer journeys, and they use Clarabridge analytics to inform the experience design and tactical initiatives. With this program in place, customer issues are quantified and tracked, and top issues become strategic KPIs.

How do utility consumers feel about their providers?

Based on our analysis of support comments from social listening in the graph below, service cut off is the most common theme and complaint voiced by customers, followed closely by pricing. All themes are highly negative, and indicate the general displeasure customers have with interacting with utility service providers.

Sample comments:

“I terminated my service due to extremely poor performance and horrible pricing on June 20th 2014.”

“Afraid my gas is going to get turned off in the coldest winter yet.”

“MY NEW BILL IS FOR $392 DOLLARS! They are insisting this is correct, that I went from 400kw to 1600+ in 1 month. They refuse to do a new meter reading. Clearly there is a problem here and it is not me. Disgusted with this company and they have not heard the last from me.”

The most pervasive emotions within these consumer comments are distrust and disbelief. Consumers say that utility providers offer little transparency around pricing and their bill. They frequently mention that the price on their electric or gas bill does not correlate with meter usage. The word “runaround” is commonly mentioned and agent communication skills are viewed as poor.

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In other industries, agent training is a key component of customer experience management. We see businesses analyzing customer feedback to identify the most common issues, and training representatives on how to quickly resolve them. These businesses use post-call surveys to understand how customers feel about their contact center interactions, analyze the comments along with other sources of feedback, and make improvements to deliver a better contact center and/or web experience.

Conversation around mobile apps is practically non-existent, which is a huge contrast to other industries. Utilities haven’t invested in providing a mobile experience, and there is a huge opportunity here to meet consumers’ needs for ease and accessibility. The success of the Nest thermostat, which is adjustable via a mobile app, is a strong indicator that consumers are looking for mobile tools to manage their energy use.

Finally, the consumer commentary shows no indication of utilities as being helpful; advisory themes are absent from the conversation. In an increasingly energy-conscious world, there is a vast opportunity for utilities to provide helpful information about energy use that would elevate the experience beyond turning on the lights, paying the bill, and calling the support center.

For more information on how service providers can use data to improve the customer experience, view our on-demand webcast: Transforming Data Noise into Data Intelligence.


Elizabeth Clor is the Sr. Director of Content Marketing and Communications at Clarabridge. In this role, she is responsible for solidifying Clarabridge’s position in the marketplace as the leading Customer Experience Management (CEM) technology vendor. Elizabeth has 17 years of experience in high-tech marketing and communications, and is a regular contributor to various marketing publications. She holds a B.A. of English from the University of Virginia.
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