Public Outreach as a Strategic Advantage

With a new fiscal year upon us, most companies are assessing their financial health and plotting a path for the future. Where does your program fit? How has it performed? Will it retain funding?

If you’re a manager of utility safety or energy efficiency programs, you are committed to reaching service area communities. You know that educating people about safety prevents accidents, protects infrastructure, and saves lives. You understand that teaching customers to use energy more responsibly can also help them save money and resources. But, do all of your stakeholders understand the value of your program?

The benefits of great outreach go beyond compliance and even beyond behavior change—they save and enhance lives. What’s more, effective outreach programs can help utilities gain a strategic advantage in the marketplace.

Communication Is Key
Nothing says “we get you” more than speaking the language of your customers. When you’re reaching out to them about safety, using their industry terminology, addressing the issues that are important to them, and reflecting their daily reality with images of their life and work, speaks volumes. We’ve found that different customers want to hear from their utility in different ways. For example, based on customer surveys, we’ve learned that third-party contractor and excavator organizations with 1–20 employees want printed materials to display in their breakrooms and to share at tailgate meetings—while larger employers want training slide shows and DVDs. When your audience is engaged by your materials, they’re more likely to read them, retain your message, and adopt the behavior. Additionally, they’re more likely to think favorably about your company.

The impact of your outreach goes beyond the direct messaging of safety or energy efficiency. In addition, these messages, through your outreach, are telling your customer: “We care about your safety,” “We help you save money,” and “We want to enhance your life.” These outreach efforts are viewed by the community as good corporate citizenship and stewardship…they build your brand and strengthen your reputation.

Keeping in Touch Makes a Difference
We know that the outreach we perform on behalf of utilities improves their customer satisfaction numbers. Case in point: In order to demonstrate the value of their third-party contractor outreach program to management, one utility company compared satisfaction rates of customers who received safety materials to customers who didn’t receive them. An independent research firm performed the assessment. The study concluded that key audiences are more engaged with the utility when proper, regular outreach is performed. What’s more, utilities performing outreach enjoy a significantly higher customer satisfaction score than those who do not.

In our outreach work for electrical and natural gas utilities we consistently find satisfaction rates in the 80–90% range. While most companies can’t boast a customer satisfaction rate anywhere near the 90s, more and more companies are discovering that these numbers are within reach if they harness the power of outreach communications. A recent JD Power study of 93 electric utilities serving nearly 12 billion customers found that proactive communication improves customer satisfaction. Best-in-class utilities now understand that this type of communication—outreach beyond compliance—is a really good idea. Not only that, it’s also good for the bottom line.

You Can’t Buy Love, But You Can Buy Trust
For those who deal with cold, hard numbers on a daily basis, brand awareness can seem intangible and amorphous. But new research puts a price tag on the power of a utility’s brand. A 2014 study released by Market Strategies International finds that the trust a utility develops with its customers can be linked to monetary value. They surveyed 19,000 residential customers of the 125 largest natural gas, electric, and combination companies to measure brand trust along with operational satisfaction and product experience. The report showed that for the top-performing “most trusted” companies in the study, the value of their good relationship with customers was an estimated $8 billion dollars.

What’s Measured, Matters
More and more utility company management, regulators, and insurers are asking for key performance indicators that reflect corporate and regulatory priorities. The metrics obtained through public outreach programs are vital to satisfying these stakeholders, proving a program’s worth, developing a process for continual improvement, and realizing a competitive advantage in the marketplace. What’s new is the growing role and power of communications. In partnership with our customers, we developed a scorecard to report on what matters most to them. The scorecard is customized for each company, but what doesn’t change is the impact these scorecards have on the people who develop them and the people they show them to. The scorecard makes real, tangible, and valuable, something that may have seemed vague—and expendable—before.

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