In March of 2020, social distancing mandates went into effect to address COVID-19. For the well-being of everyone, public buildings and offices were closed. With offices closed, it meant many critical services which required in-person contact were bound to be disrupted and temporarily discontinued. Immediately, communication concerns surface for utility managers. Although the pandemic is one of the most critical events of the year, it isn’t the first or only possible critical event to arise and cause this concern. Downed power lines, floods, boil water notices, and unplanned service interruptions should have paved the way for developing an effective communication strategy.
How would managers rapidly spread public awareness to these changes to prevent influx of complaints, customer dissatisfaction and distrust, especially during a time when uncertainty due to lack of information and anxiety were already at an all-time high? And, who did they need to alert?
Redefine who should be considered a customer
Customers don’t just mean account holders. They also include tenants, homeowners’ associations, property managers, property owners, landscape contractors, commercial tenants, and other water service stakeholders. These stakeholders should also have access to clear and timely communications regarding the state of their utility service. Email or text notifications can and should be delivered to HOAs, apartment building owners, and condominium units so that residents on shared multi-family residential meters can be notified by the account holder.
Timely and actionable communications are key
Today, customers undeniably expect instant information. From presidential alerts to trade updates for our favorite sports teams, we receive critical and not-so-critical information at ease via our mobile devices. It should be no different when it comes to utility communications. However, solely relying on local news outlets or expecting customers to monitor a utility social media feed is a recipe for disaster. Utilities must cut through all the noise and deliver messages directly to their customers preferred communication method or risk never being heard.
Many utilities have turned to Group Messenger to quickly and easily alert their customers via multiple channels (automated voice call, SMS text, and email) and to stay connected with their customers during an increasingly socially distant time. One such utility, using the WaterSmart platform, sent a timely alert to customers via email immediately following their City’s decision to go into lockdown. Not only did this utility alert their customer of expected future changes, they also provided the why behind the changes and alternative options their end-users can take.
Utilities who excel in crisis communications effectively improve customer experience by providing actionable information and follow-up steps for their customers. They treat their customers as true stakeholders and business partners by anticipating their questions and being transparent about their operations. Without this, utilities will find themselves with more work as customers will likely end up confused with questions and will want to directly speak with their providers anyway.
Of course, not all communications are the same, and it is important to recognize that providing information out of context, or at the wrong moment, can actually result in greater frustration or confusion on the part of the customer. And on the flip side, if a utility doesn’t provide clear communications at critical times it has the potential to cause serious damage to the trust between customers and their utility.
Assistance should be targeted
Throughout the pandemic’s duration, utilities have provided a multitude of financial assistance to customers to help alleviate financial burdens of the economic shutdown and loss of income. Yet, a service that no one is aware of will not accomplish its goals. To reach customers efficiently, utilities should particularly employ targeted communications to engage disadvantaged communities. The right segments can be identified and targeted based on a variety of eligibility criteria.
In this case, customers enrolled in Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs) should be targeted with messaging regarding the availability of financial assistance. This allows utilities to increase the chance of providing vulnerable populations continued access to critical utility services.
As always, critical incidents are good reminders for utility customer service departments to remain focused on regularly collecting customer contact information. Each time a customer calls is an opportunity to check that the utility has the correct home number, mobile number, and email on file for future communications. Utilities never know when they may be up against a wall and need to get in touch with their customers quickly and effectively. Proactive communication is a best practice and the more prepared that a utility is to quickly respond and reach out to their customer base, the better position everyone will be to weather the storm.