Sunday, January 25, 2015

Branding Update
January 26, 2015

The Landscape of Utility Communications

It interesting to explore the ways water and wastewater utilities communicate, and the objectives behind these communications.  Many would say that reaching out to the public is an imperative simply because the utility exists, or because public agencies need to be transparent.  But it’s a bit more interesting if we dig a little deeper and apply the context of branding.  Utility communications can be broken down into several categories, including the following:
  • Customer Service Interactions
  • Communicating to Change Customer Behaviors (Water Conservation)
  • Fulfilling Transparency Requirements
  • Communicating with Policy Makers (Water Boards, City Councils….)
  • Proactively Reaching Out to Community Leaders and the General Public
In a series of Branding Updates, we will explore the motivations and effectiveness of communicating with respect to each one of these categories, and discuss the logic for setting communication priorities.  This Branding Update addresses the customer-service category.

Exceptional Customer Service – We can argue that utilities should provide exceptional customer service simply because it’s the right thing to do.  It should be easy for customers to pay a bill or get a problem solved.  In fact, “making it easy” should be an overarching standard for delivering service, and utilities should develop a series standards that define the specifics of the customer experience.  But it’s also important to understand the link between service, communications, and branding. 

Branding Moments - Service interactions create positive or negative impressions about the utility, so it’s useful to refer to these interactions as “branding moments.”  When a customer is on hold for 20 minutes trying to get a problem solved, the utility is communicating more effectively than in almost every other situation.  The customer is clearly paying attention, which is the first and primary challenge when it comes to effective communications.  Unfortunately, in this long-hold time scenario, the utility is communicating that it doesn’t care about the customer or that it’s incompetent. We also know that when the utility does an excellent job solving a customer’s problem, then trust in the utility is greater than if the problem never occurred.  It is true that a specific negative impression may not come back to haunt the utility, because customers typically cannot choose another service provider.  But it’s clearly not fair to customers nor prudent to be stock-piling negative branding moments due to sub-par customer-service experiences.

Communication Choices - So if it comes down to a choice over allocating resources, it’s better to invest in decreasing phone hold times than to spend time and money trying to reach members of the general public (who are not generally paying attention and may not even be interested in paying attention).  Communicating to change customer behaviors, meeting transparency requirements, and building relationships with community leaders are different matters.  These opportunities will be addressed in subsequent Branding Updates.

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