In the field or in the office, our business is service.
By Paul Hull
We are servants of the public and we are also members of that public, people who are served by others in places such as retail stores, gas stations, supermarkets and government offices. As customers, we know what we like and what makes us angry. As utility service providers, we should bear those preferences in mind. Recently, I had a new pole placed for my household's electricity and telecommunications services. The people from one group were excellent; the people of the other group were not. Interestingly, the people who were good customer servers were considerably younger than the ones who were disinterested and sloppy. That made me wonder if good service weakens or vanishes as we get older in the job. People have often said that about teachers, that they lose interest and enthusiasm as they age in their profession. Let's hope they don't say that about us.
The pole installation prompted several positive thoughts. The most important observation was that we should not neglect or discount the importance of our relationship with customers just because we have been doing our job for many years. The young foreman of the young group (the impressive ones) knew my name. He didn't just knock on the door and say "Hey, you, we've arrived to install the pole." He told me, in just a few minutes, about the process of installation, how long different steps would take, and was there any time that would be inconvenient for my household routine. I was immediately in a good mood because of that approach because it made me feel like a valued customer rather than another nobody in another what's-its-name street with another problem that some boss said should be fixed. We didn't chat for long--it was only 12 degrees outside.
|"I was immediately in a good mood because of that approach, because it made me feel like a valued customer"|
It also occurred to me that the group that was miserable and unwilling, the ones who hadn't bothered to discover my name or what might be inconvenient for my normal schedule, may be treated that way by their own bosses and they were just passing it on.
Basic Behavior Towards Customers
There are several companies and courses that offer training for people who serve the public. Most of them deal with employees in retail establishments but some of the principles apply to any business, not just to retail stores. One I remember cautioned the providers against treating their customers as one chunk of society, with no reference or respect for age, sex or financial condition. The advice I recall warns providers against using words and attitudes that can be disturbing, even insulting, for older customers or women. Unless you are very poorly educated, women aren't "guys" and all older people are not unintelligent zombies. In our utility business, be it power or telecommunications, our customers cover the entire range of people.
Many of us have been bombarded with technologies and technicalities that try to tell us, and sell us, more than we need for our computers, our cars and our household appliances. Most utility customers do not know, nor do they need to know, the technical details of appliances and installations. I, for example, knew what the new power pole was going to do (stop the existing line from sagging; it was dangerously low) but I did not need to know how the auger for the hole worked or how to make the new connections. The foreman could have spent an hour explaining some of the technicalities; that's not what the customer wanted.
One sometimes difficult decision to make is stopping the know-it-all customer from nonstop talking when the crew should be working on the installation or repair. That can be difficult, especially if the chatterbox finds you and your crew the only social contacts he or she has had for days--but the job is always the top priority and being firm about getting it done is not necessarily rude. Field workers have told me the most awkward conversations occur when the work being done will change something the customer has become used to over the months or years—trimming trees and bushes would be an example. For most of these "necessary changes" situations, the best solution is explaining the importance of safety for utility and customer. Utility workers are accustomed to the concept of safe work and safe installation conditions, and there are people who believe in that, except when it affects their lifestyle or property. You can be firm, without being annoying, when you explain the situation. As I recall, there has always been a crew supervisor present when anything that could inconvenience the customer is being done, and that is a good habit.
First, congratulate yourselves. In a report published last year, the trend from the previous few years that customer satisfaction with their utility has been improving was reinforced once again. So, we are doing better--in particular fields. As the technologies for communications between utility and customer improve because of cell phones, texting, smart phones, etc., information about outages and other time-sensitive problems and solutions has improved in many places. One condition that affects this is the presence of competition. Where utilities face challenges from other utilities, customer satisfaction seems to improve. Where there is no competition for a particular service, customers tend to be less enthusiastic about the one they have to have because they contrast what they receive with services that others receive. They can easily see that information on the Internet.
Hiring more customer service people is seldom a practical remedy. Utilities are looking at technological solutions for their customer interface challenges, which could include outsourcing and what we can call cloud solutions. Another expensive necessity in customer service may be updating aging infrastructure--a problem that has shown costly solutions in other areas of service, such as highways and streets, water distribution and sewer services. It's common to blame the people who designed and installed infrastructure 50 years ago and ask, "Whatever were they thinking?" But that is unfair. Nobody expected, nor was paid to design for, some of the major expansions in population and use of infrastructure. Did our original interstate highways expect today's volume of traffic? Did the original power lines expect today's demand? The changes have arrived, and more will occur in the next 50 years. On a brighter note, power outages in recent years have been repaired in far fewer hours than were reported only a few years ago. Last year the average time required to correct a power outage was less than six hours, contrasted with 12 in the previous year. That's good customer service, and the crews responsible for the improvement deserve recognition and praise.
New technologies seem to be the solution for old problems in many areas of industry, and they can be, but there is a caveat. In some industry sectors, some of the providers of technological solutions have been guilty of overkill, with vendors selling much more than was needed to solve the problem. Customers don't like that and have turned down solutions that were more expensive than expected and less useful than promised. Customers are now looking for affordable pieces of proposed solutions rather than the complete package. If you are researching technological solutions for your service challenges, you should first know what your challenge is and then look for its solution rather than accepting its solution with other add-on "benefits." Almost everyone I know complains of the cost of new vehicles--cars or pickups--and some of that is because of the number of options the new owner must take. Some options are neither optional nor seen as benefits; that's what makes potential buyers angry. Most utility customers seem to like the newer technologies used in paying bills, recording usage, and the obviously practical aspects of the relationship, but some services or suggestions are perceived as ways for the utility to get more income from something that is not clearly a new benefit for the customer. It doesn't matter if the customer is wrong. If the customer perceives a new benefit as something negative, it may be time to reconsider how that benefit is marketed.
Most of us know what comprises good customer service. We know that some customers--usually the same annoying few--make good service a difficult business, but success with those few comes from a little clenching of the teeth and biting of the lip. The vast majority of our customers appreciate good efforts to make life better, and it's that vast majority that keeps our business and jobs going. If you've been thinking that friendly, positive customer service is a chore that you could do without, you should rethink the situation!