Miracle Workers: How Utilities Can Generate More Goodwill

When the lights went out on Super Bowl XLVII last month, America’s electric utilities were provided a stark reminder of the marquee reputational challenge they face. Despite the fact that Entergy New Orleans restored power to the Super Dome in just 34 minutes, the dominant narrative across social and traditional media was the problem, not the solution. The task was as immense as it was complex, and it was carried out under the most difficult of circumstances. Nonetheless, the restoration effort barely created a ripple in an outage conversation that out-trended Beyonce’s half-time show and every other Super Bowl-related topic, including the game itself, on Twitter.

Utilities across the country work similar miracles every day; most are similarly disregarded by consumers who have come to expect perfection from the public and private power industries. Most of us have little to no understanding of what it takes to keep the juice running. It’s not something we think about until we’re forced to live without it. The miracle is now routine—and when breaks in the routine inevitably occur, we have astoundingly little patience for utilities that perform flawlessly the other 99.9 percent of the time.

Such fickle consumer attitudes are apparent in the numbers. According to J.D. Power’s 2012 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Survey, utilities score a paltry 625 on a 1,000-point scale. That puts them nearly 100 points behind banks, insurers, and other historically unloved industries. To be lagging so far behind banks four years into an economic downturn is a particularly telling stat.

The anecdotal evidence is just as compelling. In July 2011, a public utility, PEPCO (Potomac Electric Power Company), rose to the top of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index’s (ACSI) list of the "Most Hated Companies in America." That’s not a list of just power companies mind you; but of all companies doing business in the U.S. At the same time, consumer advocate offices—such as Illinois’ Citizens Utility Board and California’s Utility Reform Network—are popping up across the country. Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced his desire to disband the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) due to delays in repairing infrastructure ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Now, consider that all of this is happening despite the remarkable acumen that most utilities demonstrate in their customer engagement strategies. They are out in front of most other industries in terms of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), as utility messaging on pricing, emissions, storm preparedness, and other significant issues often claims top billing on Google. Many of them leverage social media during outages to provide consumers with timely, detailed, and highly localized information about restoration efforts. Their websites are content-rich and focused on consumer needs.

Clearly, many utility companies put a great deal of thought into consumer outreach and reputation management. So why is the industry still so reviled? Why don’t we cut utilities more slack for outages that are often caused by forces outside their control and resolved as quickly as possible?

There is the fact that media attention often falls on the worst of public utilities, the ones that increase rates and don’t invest in infrastructure for years upon years. But there is a larger factor at play. For the most part, the public doesn’t appreciate the hard work, fast action, and professionalism that ultimately saved the Super Bowl. We don’t see the utility worker toiling atop a cherry picker in high winds and driving rain to restore power to a blacked-out community. We aren’t exposed to the stories of expertise, courage, and sense of service that makes the miracle of light happen; so those factors aren’t there to diminish our anxiety and frustration when it doesn’t.

Utilities have a powerful story that simply isn’t being told. They are the engine that makes every aspect of modern life possible. They are the first responders on the front lines when Mother Nature wreaks her havoc. They are the men and women who take considerable risks to protect our comfort and convenience. These are the narratives that will establish tangible consumer connections and put a human face on that flick of the switch. And that level of familiarity is precisely what’s needed to earn and maintain higher levels of public trust.

These messages need to be front and center, and disseminated in ways that maximize their impact.

First and foremost, that means integrating the use of web video to show, rather than merely tell, consumers what it really takes to keep electricity flowing on sunny and stormy days alike. I’ve spent time on dozens of utility websites around the country and am amazed by the overwhelming number that use clip art. Nice pictures of smiling people, and hardly any of them of real. Pictures are how we communicate. So the goal should be to use this extraordinary opportunity that technology has provided to relay a message in an emotional way that gets customers saying, "That’s my utility company."

It also means optimizing these emotional narratives for online search just as aggressively as those related to rates and other issues. And it means personalizing these stories with the same targeted social media outreach strategies that utilities deploy to provide personalized updates during outages. The single factor that significantly moves the needle of customer satisfaction for utilities is localized messaging (e.g. "your power in your neighborhood will be returned within four hours"). Technology now allows utilities to do this adroitly. Why not do it during peacetime, instead of just during the storm?

Familiarity breeds understanding, and understanding, in turn, breeds trust. When consumers begin to better understand all that utilities and the people behind them do, the more they will appreciate the millions of tiny miracles utilities enable every day. More important, they will be all the more willing to provide utilities with the benefit of the doubt when they fall short of the perfect performance they demand.

After all, most Americans love and trust Apple and thus give it time to fix its mistakes. Aren’t the companies that provide the power that lets Apple be Apple entitled to the same?

They are, but only if they understand that like a light bulb, television, or computer turning on, brand loyalty doesn’t just happen on its own.

—Follow Richard Levick on Twitter and circle him on Google+, where he comments daily on the issues impacting corporate brands. Levick is chairman and CEO of LEVICK, which represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters—from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis.

[Image: Flickr user James Offer]

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