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The Voice of the Customer and Digital Planning in Utilities

by: SilverTech


SilverTech has a long history of digital planning in utilities working with major brands like Pepco Holdings, Inc and American Water. From online reputation management to optimizing thousands of pages of content, our work has encompassed all aspects of the customer lifecycle. But, this post is not just for those in utilities. There is a great deal that can be learned from the concept that drives the best online engagement in utilities: the Voice of the Customer (VOC).

SilverTech’s Chief Digital Officer, Jeff McPherson, and Principal Strategist, Samantha Maltais sat down to discuss this concept and to share some of what they have learned over the years from working in this complex industry.

Listen to the conversation above or read excerpts below.

Before we dive into the topic at hand, could you both share your background in this industry. Jeff, perhaps you could start and give us a bit of SilverTech’s history working in utilities.

Jeff – Sam and I have had the pleasure of working together on many utilities projects. SilverTech has been involved in the utility space for about 15 years now…not just in electrical utilities, but also water, electrical, gas, and propane delivery. We have been pretty lucky to work with the largest water utility in North America. We have also helped transform a utility that was previously deemed the most hated company in America. So, we have faced challenges on all spectrums.

Thanks to our work in utilities, I have had the opportunity to be a two-time speaker at CS Week [the premier annual educational and customer service conference that serves utility professionals]. There, I spoke about digital transformation and strategies for effective outage communication.

Let’s discuss the concept of the Voice of the Customer (VOC). It’s most often used in utilities, but I think it’s a concept that can be applied to any industry. It’s about listening to your customers and what their needs are. But, too often organizations confuse a single feedback survey for listening to their customers. How can data help organizations here?

Jeff – A single feedback survey cannot encompass all of the various stages a customer can experience with your brand. For example, on a blue-sky day, a customer’s responses are going to be very positive while during an outage they are going to be very negative.

Breaking down the voice of the customer at various stages is extremely important to get the true voice; so, you can have a conversation with your customers and provide the right experience.

Once you have an understanding of the VOC, how can you use that to design a better website, build a better mobile app, and overall improve the customer experience?

Sam – To arrive at an understanding of the voice of the customer, your organization will have likely gone through a persona exercise. That includes identifying your audiences and then identifying what they like and don’t like and what is important to them. Also included in a persona document is a section called the ideal online experience.

When you are designing a site, you will refer back to that ideal experience and start to prioritize based on what is important to your personas. Looking at where you put your “my account” button, for example, is very important. Looking at what other types of information you put on that my account landing page is also very important including what the company wants to make sure gets out to customers. There is a whole bunch of stuff that we can talk about in terms of the redesign; what colors you use, what fonts you use, why use some over others, but the prioritization of the information on your website is the biggest way that the voice of the customer can help improve the customer experience.

Jeff – The voice of the customer is about helping your customers find things quick and being responsive while holding yourself accountable.

Let’s discuss the difference between customer service and customer experience. Customer service is reactive; responding to a social media complaint, fielding a phone call. Customer experience is proactive; designing the experience before the customer has the need. Can you speak to this difference and how important digital planning is in becoming a customer experience company rather than a customer service company?

Sam – If customer experience is done right, it should actually help in terms of the number of customer service inquiries. It should make those inquiries a lot less of a burden. The majority of utilities customer service inquiries are about a power outage. “When am I going to get my power back?”

We develop experiences specifically for outages. For example, when we worked with Pepco, we designed a completely new homepage that took over the website with the important information required during an outage. Pepco could switch that on at a moment’s notice and customize it based on a particular geography. Customers who didn’t experience that outage wouldn’t see that homepage but those people who were in the middle of it could get to that information quickly and not feel they had to call with an inquiry.

Let’s talk technology. There are a lot of overlapping systems in utilities – CMS, CIS, Mobile Apps, etc. – all creating a lot of data. When the time comes to decide on a new system, how do you ensure the implementation is smooth and no data is lost?

Jeff – Yes, there are a lot of systems. First, we have to identify where customer data is stored, where is the homeowner data stored. Then, we have to gain an understanding of where it goes; how all of the data feeds flow. The right way to do this is to do an entire technology infrastructure review prior to moving forward.

Sam – Huge discoveries.

Jeff – Yes, there are big discovery phases. That foundational map will help tell us what is changing now, what’s changing in the future, and then how we will architect a solution. The right way to do this, for almost all utilities clients, is to ensure that the content management system (CMS) is the display layer. In our experience with Pepco, there were 33 different systems pushing data into the customer experience. The CMS is the system that will take all of that data and feed it out. The reason you do that is so that when you change a system behind the content management system, you don’t change the customer experience. You might present more data, more valuable data, but the experience remains the same which is critical to that process.

Sam – Having a very regimented plan in place is absolutely necessary. Going through that in-depth discovery process, understanding what the immediate state looks like, what the immediate mid-state looks like and then the long-term future state. In some cases, having a technology roadmap that spans five years is essential particularly when you are dealing with five million customers and a lot of different pieces of customer data. However, as long as there is a plan in place, a plan to get from point a to point b, the time doesn’t matter. It is really just a case of pulling everything together into something that doesn’t lose that data.

There is a lot going on when it comes to digital planning, and I think that a lot of organizations rightfully look internally first but, in some cases, do not take it far enough.

Many organizations actually fall when they start their messaging from their internal view and not the view of the customer. I think that in order to be successful in a digital planning exercise, you must form a stakeholder group that will involve folks from IT, corporate communications, customer experience and the executive board. I think it is absolutely necessary to have a committee of people who are empowered to make decisions with a good timeline in place and established service level agreements (SLAs). Otherwise, it can take months to decide what you are going to do for each particular part of the project and that is just not feasible.

Listen to the full conversation on the SilverTech podcast available at the top of the page.