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Re-Energizing The Customer Experience for Utilities with Social Customer Service

Mike Schneider
By Mike Schneider on Apr 30, 2014 9:49:00 AM


Utilities Are Not Meeting Consumer Expectations for Social Customer Service

Before the internet age, most customers interacted with their utilities companies in two situations: when they received their monthly bill or if they were complaining about an outage. Similar to all industries that directly service a large number of consumers, social media has presented both opportunities and threats alike, with heightened potential for social media crises–but also the opportunity to hugely improve the customer experience.

This opportunity comes at a time of need for utilities brands. Edelman’s 2014 Trust Barometer for the Global Energy Industry found that only 29% of customers surveyed trusted their utility provider.

Experts agree that a key reason behind this lack of trust is a failure to provide the digital experience that today’s customers expect. In the meantime, other industries have adopted social as a channel to efficiently and effectively resolve customer issues at scale. But the majority of utility companies have lagged behind, using social channels for marketing and PR–leaving thousands of unanswered service queries from customers.

This means that adoption of social customer service by utilities is not a luxury, but a necessity. Customer expectations for customer service over social channels will only continue to increase: 57 million customers engaged with utilities via social media in 2011, and this number is expected to rise to 624 million by the end of 2017.  

Missed Opportunities: Publishing But Not Engaging

In order to fully embrace the benefits of social customer service, utility companies must change how they see their social channels, and importantly who manages them. Recent research from Capgemini Consulting looked at the adoption of digital channels by the top 50 utility providers across the globe, finding that utilities are using social media channels primarily to share information, which includes energy efficiency tips, emergency handling tips, or outage information.

Our Analysis of 20 Top Utilities Twitter Customer Service PerformanceInterestingly, 58% of utilities use their social media channels to promote their community development, but only 34% of utilities address the complaints they receive from customers on social media channels. This indicates that marketing and/or communications still own social at most utilities companies. The brands’ sizeable customer service departments, however, have yet to take ownership of the millions of public customer complaints on social.

Using our Twitter Performance Tracker, we looked at how well 20 top American utilities use Twitter as a customer service tool. It is worth noting that these 20 companies are among the 34% who are responding on social, leaving out a very large 66% who are not responding at all. This is a far cry from the over 70 percent of US companies across other industries who provide social customer service in some form.

Nearly all of North America’s large retail banks are responding on social and, as shown in our research in Tweet, Email or Call?, Telecoms resolve an average of 98% of social customer issues in-channel (not sending customers to traditional channels like phone and email). This discrepancy between the high number of phone providers providing social customer service and the low number of utility companies is especially puzzling considering that the average American pays $107.28 for utilities every month, but only $71/month for their phone.

Social Media Utilities

In all cases we used the Twitter Search API to find the most recent 2000 @ mentions. We then gathered the replies that the brand Twitter handle made. We automatically matched replies to mentions and calculated the time taken in each case, excluding the slowest 5% of tweets (which can otherwise disproportionately affect the results). Please note that we realize that numbers do not tell the full story. In terms of responsiveness in particular, Utilities' Twitter handles are prone to differing amounts of queries demanding a customer service response. 

With an average response time of 5 hours, 39 minutes, it is safe to say that response times are not meeting consumer expectations. There are numerous pieces of research that show that customers want response times within an hour or less. In this case, however, it makes sense to evaluate the response times with a more situational approach: utility brands must realize that forcing a customer to wait hours for a response over social media–possibly when they’re having a serious energy crisis–is like making a customer wait on hold for hours, only in public.

Failing to respond to direct @mentions (the average responsiveness of the 20 utilities companies analyzed was 20.61%) is like  ignoring a customer’s phone call or email. Since no serious outages occurred during the week analyzed (April 16-23rd), future analysis will be necessary to see how the brands deal with surges in customer complaint volume.

It is time for utilities to re-energize the customer experience they provide by embracing social customer service. Social media mixes public and private, can be one-to-many, and combines customer service issues with general chatter and engagement. As a result, social customer service requires different approaches to prioritization, workflow and analytics. But an effective, secure, and scalable social customer service program starts with investment in a dedicated solution.

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