Customer Service: The Heart of a Utility’s Business

More than anybody, utilities know what their customers expect in service.

More than anybody, utilities know what their customers expect in service.

Customer service is one of those benefits touted by almost every business in every industry. As consumers ourselves, we tend to remember it mostly in retail stores, where a disinterested assistant can send us fleeing to the exit, or in the supermarket, when our favorite brand is curiously missing from the shelf where we usually find it. Some of our worst experiences with customer service have been those when we have been unable to talk to a real person to explain our difficulties.

The problem could have concerned a bank statement, an incorrect entry in a credit card account, or a faulty piece of electronic merchandise. Utility companies, whether they provide electricity, gas, water, telephone, or cable to their customers, know more about customer service because that is the heart of their business. Utilities are service companies. Service is the benefit they offer.

Ask your neighbors about utility services and they will reply that they want service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, plus immediate response if the service fails. And, generally, that’s what they get. If utility company customer service ratings have remained high even when the costs have risen, it is because they deliver the service they promise. But, there will always be customers who can find an unusual complaint to air. For that reason, utility companies employ professionals trained in the art of handling customer complaints. (Are they reached readily? Are they knowledgeable enough to answer most complaints? Do they sound genuinely concerned with the customer?) For the vast majority of customers, however, good service means that the equipment works whenever they want it. Apart from times of hostile weather (which customers understand) utility service can claim to be the best in the world.

What happens when some external force interrupts the service? It’s not always a wild summer thunderstorm or a splitting winter ice storm that can stop service. With most of our wires still above ground, it can be the trees that grow naturally and beautifully beside them that interfere with constant, consistent service. There can be a conflict of opinion there. People like trees and some resent any trimming, even when you explain that the trees can become a threat to service (and safety). Most of the trimming is done expertly, with a minimum of aesthetic damage, by crews who understand their mission.

In May this year, First Energy was named a Tree Line USA utility by the National Arbor Day Foundation in cooperation with the National Association of Foresters. The award recognizes investor-owned and public utilities (for gas, water and electricity) that promote the parallel goals of dependable utility service and abundant, healthy trees along America’s streets and highways.

“Because tree contacts typically are one of the biggest causes of customer power outages, our employees and contractors work hard to strike a balance between ensuring safe and reliable electric service, while maintaining the natural beauty in the communities we serve,” said Donald R. Schneider, FirstEnergy senior vice president of energy delivery and customer service. “Our tree care program combines the best practices of certified arborists and foresters to keep vegetation away from power lines and electric equipment, which helps the number and severity of service interruptions our customers experience.”

That’s customer service. FirstEnergy has seven electric utility operating companies and has won the award for the 10th consecutive year.

A little to the west of FirstEnergy, Detroit Edison planned tree cutting for 50 communities in southeastern Michigan in May and June. “We trim trees for two very important reasons,” said Vince Dow, DTE Energy vice president of distribution operations. “We want to ensure our customers have dependable electric service and to prevent safety hazards. By maintaining a 10-foot clearance between the tree branches and our power lines, we can significantly reduce tree-related power outages.”

Tree interference is responsible for some two-thirds of the power outages during storms. Detroit Edison employs more than 500 professional tree trimmers to maintain the estimated 3.5 million trees in its service territory. The directional pruning that both Detroit Edison and FirstEnergy use removes only branches that threaten power lines and helps ensure that future growth is directed away from the power lines. If you are still topping the entire tree, directional pruning would be a better customer service approach.

Professional Service

Tree trimming, of course, isn’t the only contributor to good utility customer service. The daily attention to requests for repair or adjustment are equally important. Those everyday tasks—one might call them housekeeping—are an integral part of customer service. Most important for the utility is that the service is performed in a professional manner. That means the people who do the work are trained professionals, skilled in the many and varied aspects of their work, and that, in its turn, means that the people you hire and employ are professionals.

What is a professional? Is it simply somebody who is paid to do a job? No. Implied in the title “professional” is that extra, seldom certificated skill which allows a task to be completed accurately and in a friendly way. It does not enhance customer service if your professionals are surly or impolite. A repair accompanied by a smile will reinforce your utility’s good image. The style in which work is done is important, almost as much as the neatness and speed. The philosophy that “Good enough is good enough” finds no welcome in our utility industry.

Commitment to customers can be shown most dramatically in a utility’s response to disasters. It is recognized when crews from utilities in Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio help local crews in Illinois get their customers back in service. Customers notice that national cooperation. It shows an industry that is working for, and committed to, communities. When we act as retail customers we are thinking of customer service as a one-to-one relationship, but for most utilities the customer is a group rather than an individual. That group is often a community: a village, a city, a county. Some of the best customer service comes in the form of financial support for community projects, such as helping the public library, school efforts, healthcare programs or even sports ventures.

The Entergy Charitable Foundation announced grants of more than $2.1 million to 78 organizations throughout Entergy’s operating area. Almost half the money is for education programs in south Louisiana. “The goals of the Entergy Charitable Foundation are clear cut,” said Patricia Riddlebarger, Entergy Corporation’s director of corporate social responsibility. “We help the communities Entergy serves through grants that strengthen education and help break the cycle of poverty. It’s part of our longstanding commitment to the people we serve.”

The foundation’s purpose is to help low-income families and individuals escape poverty by providing them with tools such as education, job training and placement, literacy programs, affordable housing, and helping them build assets. It’s a good example of customer service.

Progress Energy (through its foundation) is investing more than a million dollars in K-12 education across its service territory. This utility has committed more than $15 million in the last seven years to public education throughout its service areas in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina.

“Our company has a proud history of supporting education in the communities where our customers and employees live and work,” said Lloyd Yates, president and CEO, Progress Energy Carolinas. “Progress Energy’s education grants support organizations that help ensure all students have an opportunity to learn, grow and reach their full potential. Our support is also focused on providing opportunities for students to learn more about energy efficiency and renewable energy. Today’s students are the homeowners of tomorrow and will be responsible for making wise energy choices.”

Community support does not have to be in millions, or even thousands. The biggest utilities help in millions, but that does not diminish the value of smaller gifts.

“We believe in giving more than financial support to the communities where we work and live,” said Fred Fowler, president and CEO of Spectra Energy. “Our employees’ investment in sweat equity projects demonstrates our commitment to being a good neighbor and the caring nature of our employees.” Non-financial projects for Spectra professionals have included: cleaning a beach in Galveston, Texas; repairing the home of an elderly customer; planting a garden for an elementary school in Jackson, Mississippi; beautification of the Blessing Community Center in Blessing, Texas; landscaping for an elementary school in Kingsport, Tennessee; and enhancing a picnic shelter for a school in Abingdon, Virginia.

There’s no shortage of need. Utility companies, already the princes and princesses of service to their communities with electricity, gas, water, telephone, and cable, can go even further by undertaking community projects that require little effort or money, but give immeasurable amounts of pleasure and comfort to many people.

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