Residential customer satisfaction is an ongoing challenge for energy utilities, especially as energy costs increase, technology advances and customer expectations change.
“We need to make sure we’re addressing the evolving needs and expectations of our customers because they’re constantly changing,” says Debbie Leist, Director of Customer Services and Marketing at Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities (LG&E and KU). “Reliable service is important, as well as providing programs and tools that our customers want and need.”
Higher bills impacting CSAT
According to J.D. Power’s most recent Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, overall residential utility customer satisfaction has dropped as customers face higher energy bills and greater financial hardship. In fact, overall customer satisfaction is now at 731 (on a 1,000-point scale), which is a decrease from 750 in 2021.
Just like other industries, utilities are evaluating their customer experience — from paying a bill to reporting an outage — to ensure greater engagement and maintain long-term satisfaction. “Utilities need to be sensitive to the financial challenges that some customers are experiencing,” says John Hazen, Managing Director of Utility Intelligence at J.D. Power, in a press release.
Recent research finds that utility customers only think about their energy provider for about 10 minutes each year. During this time, they are typically facing an outage or billing issue. Utilities must take proactive steps to create positive customer touchpoints to offset these negative experiences.
But how do you keep customers happy over the long haul? Utilities ranked highest in residential customer satisfaction in their respective regions shared best practices and what they believe contributed to their success.
Convenience should be a priority
When it comes to accessing programs and services, utility customers don’t want to jump through hoops. That’s why utility platforms, whether websites, portals or mobile apps, should be easy-to-use and intuitive. Customers feel empowered when they can easily access their bill, make a payment, report an outage and perform other essential functions.
To provide greater convenience to customers, utilities are increasingly providing digital self-serve options. PSE&G offers customers an opt-in text notifications program, My Account web portal and mobile app. According to Cynthia Foose, Manager of Customer Assessment at PSE&G, those enrolled in the utility’s My Alerts program rank higher in customer satisfaction, emphasizing how consumers appreciate proactive communications.
Natasha Collins, Director of Media Relations for LG&E and KU, says their mobile app is a major contributor to higher customer satisfaction. Since launching in 2021, the LG&E and KU app currently has a half million downloads, showcasing the popularity of this convenient platform. In a single calendar year, the utility’s customers conducted 5.4 million transactions on the app alone.
“Convenience is important,” Leist says. “When we say convenience, we’re talking about offering a variety of options to customers — not everyone likes to pay or interact with us in the same way. It’s important that we can meet customers where they want to be met and we offer a variety of technologies and tools to give them the flexibility to do that.”
Empathy goes a long way
In these times of high inflation and rising costs across the board, customers need empathy and understanding from their energy provider. This is especially true for low- and medium-income customers who spend an average of 8.1% of their income on energy bills.
According to the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative’s (SECC) research, 46% of low-income customers are unaware of assistance programs available to them. Additionally, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) finds that Black households face an energy burden that is 43% higher, while Hispanic families face an energy burden that is 20% higher. For utilities, there is a tremendous opportunity to help customers find assistance and reduce their energy burdens.
For PSE&G, supporting customers is a contributing factor to the utility’s high customer satisfaction. For example, leading up to the winter heating season, the utility developed robust campaigns to educate customers on how to improve energy efficiency, lower their energy bills and take advantage of financial assistance.
“It’s important to get the word out about our energy efficiency programs, as well as federal and state payment assistance programs,” Foose says. “There are targeted campaigns, along with general awareness campaigns, to make sure customers who are eligible for assistance know how to sign up.”
To be good stewards of the community, LG&E and KU connect customers in need to energy-saving programs. Through the utility’s WeCare (Weatherization, Conservation Advice and Recycling Energy) program, eligible customers receive both weatherization and energy education. They learn how to be more efficient, whether through energy efficiency efforts or energy-saving devices, like smart thermostats.
“We have a team dedicated to these customers to help them make energy-saving changes to their home,” Collins says. “They look at different ways energy is impacted in their homes and help them better manage their energy use, which ultimately impacts their energy bills.”
Customers want proactive communications
With so much change in the energy industry, it behooves utilities to regularly communicate with customers in a wide variety of formats, including email, newsletters and text messages. Both transparency and proactive communications are cornerstones of high rates of customer satisfaction.
In fact, Cogent Syndicated’s Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement Residential Report finds that customer satisfaction is higher when customers are reminded of their utility’s proactive digital communications (such as bill reminders or outage alerts).
According to Foose, PSE&G uses a variety of channels to share important and timely information with customers. These channels include email, newsletters, bill inserts and messages, website, social media and occasionally digital and radio ads. Customer campaigns are measured and analyzed through engagement metrics and surveys to evaluate effectiveness and adjust as necessary.
“We’re a utility, but we’re not being compared to other utilities. We’re being compared to Amazon and other retailers that are quicker to market or more agile,” Foose says. “We have to be just as nimble and provide similar experiences that our customers have come to expect.”
For LG&E and KU, a major focus is communicating with customers about economic development initiatives, service reliability improvements and community partnerships that showcase how the utility is giving back. Other popular topics include:
- Self-service options
- AMI awareness and preparation
- Convenient payment options
- Safety and emergency preparedness
- Energy efficiency programs and services
When it comes to information that impacts many customers, the utility’s media relations team will reach out to community leaders to act as advocates. The utility hosts quarterly meetings with these individuals to share the latest updates and provide a Q&A session. The advocates help to get the word out, educating and increasing awareness of the utility’s programs and services in their own communities.
“Communication is important,” says Leist. “We take what we call a surround-sound approach to that, in meeting customers on platforms that they use most, so we don’t just rely on one way to communicate to our customers.”
Staying one step ahead
Building long-term residential customer satisfaction is an ongoing process, requiring a dedication to continuously improving customer experiences. With energy costs top of mind for customers, utilities must be one step ahead to provide convenient services, helpful assistance programs and proactive communications.