Engagement among key accounts, or large commercial and industrial customers, is a continued challenge facing energy utilities. A combination of workforce changes, new technologies and shifting customer preferences have caused a decline in customer engagement among this important audience.
For energy utilities, the solution is not a quick fix. Energy utilities are tackling this challenge in myriad ways, from key account manager (KAM) training to improved customer experiences.
Fallout from the pandemic
According to Questline's 2022 Energy Utility Benchmarks Report, key account customer engagement with utility communications saw a dip in 2021. Energy utilities experienced a 17.7% decrease in open rate for eNewsletters and program promotions targeting key account customers.
"COVID-19 had an incredible impact on key account engagement," says Mary Brott, Manager of Business Support and Development at Alliant Energy. "Not being able to be face-to-face with customers puts you on a whole different plane with them. After two years of relying on virtual meetings, the level of engagement has certainly been challenging and forced us to find new, creative ways to connect."
Following the negative effects of the pandemic, utilities are once again making key account relationship-building a priority. And for good reason. These commercial customers consume a significant portion of grid resources and often represent 30% to 50% of a utility's load and revenue.
Like many industries, the utility industry is experiencing massive changes in its workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 25% of the utility workforce is expected to retire by 2023. Additionally, the "Great Resignation," where record numbers of workers quit their jobs in 2021, has had an enormous impact. Many utilities, struggling to find qualified applicants, are filling KAM roles with candidates with limited industry experience.
"There is a larger changeover in workforce at play," says Darren Thraen, Vice President of Sales and Business Development at Questline. "Even though there is an expectation that by 2029 10% of the overall workforce will be made up of people 65 and older, we are seeing that key account managers are retiring or leaving the space, and the new individuals that are hired have limited or no utility experience. We are seeing that shift in their labor market impacting key account engagement rates."
Many energy utilities are addressing these workforce issues from a training perspective. Currently, Georgia Power is working on a variety of training resources for new KAMs, including job aids, playbooks, webinars and formal classes as the subjects require.
"Our first area of focus is energy fundamentals," says Faith McKinley, Sales Training Consultant at Georgia Power. "We're getting a lot of new hires from outside the utility industry who need catching up on the basics of electricity. We're all wanting our KAMs to become well-versed in areas like electric transportation, solar trends and other hot topics."
For Alabama Power, many of the utility's trainings were historically conducted in-person by tenured employees. As these traditional methods became more challenging, the utility jumpstarted its efforts to create digital training resources. The result is a knowledge database featuring a repertoire of articles, infographics, videos and webinars.
"With many of our technical experts retiring, we needed a knowledge base and we needed it very quickly," says Kelly Fikes, Training Manager, Marketing and Economic Development at Alabama Power. "The idea was to have trainings in a format that could be easily shared with the current workforce as well as new employees during the onboarding process."
In addition to the knowledge gap, training on relationship building and communication is also recommended, notes Daryl Rollins, Key Account Manager, Industrial Segment, at Georgia Power. Many younger employees are more comfortable texting than calling or meeting face-to-face.
"It's necessary to learn effective communication skills, such as engaging with a person, properly shaking someone's hand and having poise in your presentation delivery," Rollins says. "These core communication skills will give new KAMs more confidence in their interactions with customers."
To build successful key account relationships, proactive customer interactions are vital. Instead of waiting until a customer has a problem or need, key account managers should take action to connect via in-person meetings, Brott recommends. These visits should be tailored to the customer, not simply an information dump.
"Face-to-face communication is invaluable, especially in the more rural communities that we serve in Wisconsin and Iowa," Brott says. "People in our service territory still want to shake your hand. That form of communication goes a long way in developing and fortifying relationships."
According to Fikes, it's vital to know how your customers prefer to communicate, whether by in-person meetings, email or even text message. It's all about knowing your customers and their preferences.
"What one customer prefers may not be what another customer prefers," Fikes says. "Some of our customers may want that one-on-one contact, while others want a quick text message or Zoom call."
Changing customer expectations
Key account customers should view their energy utility as a trusted partner to help them keep their businesses running smoothly and reach long-term sustainability goals. This relationship takes time and effort to develop.
"In order to be a partner, you have to be trained on how to be a partner," Rollins says. "This also means understanding what being a partner means for your customers who may need you to offer guidance on energy audits, solar projects and other objectives."
In today' world of personalized customer experiences, key accounts expect more from their energy utility than ever before. Utility communications need to be tailored to the specific needs of each customer. To increase engagement, Thraen recommends segmentation for utility communications.
By identifying customer needs, segmentation allows utilities to send targeted communications that resonate with customers. AEP Ohio segmented its key accounts business newsletter by multiple industries, driving up to an 84% increase in customer engagement.
For Alabama Power, segmentation is an important strategy for improving key account engagement. The utility's emails, newsletters and webinars are segmented by industry, including food service, healthcare, aerospace and manufacturing (such as automotive and primary metals).
"You only have so much time to engage with customers, particularly key accounts who are trying to operate their business," says Alvis Wright, Marketing Program and Support Manager at Alabama Power. "You want to make sure the information you're sharing is valuable and delivered in the method that is going to get the most eyes on it."
Key account engagement will continue to be an issue to address with changing workforces and customer preferences. With a focus on training, proactive communication and a personalized customer experience, energy utilities can go a long way to building stronger key account relationships.