The Coronavirus took an already challenging path to digital transformation and made it even more difficult, especially for utilities. The speed at which customers shifted to online-only modes of engagement closely followed the pace of the outbreak, and it’s possible that we’ve reached the digital tipping point. If physical distancing and pandemic conditions persist for just several weeks, the digital habits that customers develop with work-from-home, physical distancing, and asynchronous digital engagement may become the new normal for most brands.
For utilities, that new normal requires us to double-down on our digital transformation efforts, but the current conditions force us to measure our activities very carefully. Utilities sit at the center of a hub of concern for customers at the moment, so we need to tread carefully with customer outreach in favor of support for their key concerns. We’ve rarely had a more important reason for getting into our customer headspace than the current pandemic.
With much of the country under voluntary or imposed shelter-in-place restrictions, food and shelter shift from non-issues to genuine “front of mind” considerations. Uncertainty about the current local and global conditions means customers must keep food in the freezer, lights and the TVs on, and power to their computers and mobile devices to stay connected to family and support services. Utilities sit squarely at the center of that web of connected services. Add to the critical mix the possibility of reduced income or extended unemployment, and “keeping the lights on” takes on a whole new meaning.
Adding to the challenge, utilities also face their own work from home conditions that have tested the ability to shift customer service out of care centers into the cloud, so staying connected to customers becomes even more difficult at exactly the moment it’s most needed. What should utilities do?
Customers need clear ongoing communication across as many digital channels as possible that stays on point. Just like all digital communications, now more than ever relevant, timely, and personalized matters most. Forgo any planned nurture or outreach campaigns that don’t support the current local conditions.
Use all of the digital assets at your disposal, which means regular updates to your website with active links and fresh pages pointing your customers to the most current available information about the topics that matter most.
- Service Suspensions or Disconnections – Customers who may have lost a job or struggle with drops in income want to know quickly what the policy is for service suspensions or interruptions due to non-payment. Use plain English to make clear to customers the new policies and service delivery commitments. This message builds trust and credibility at a particularly fragile time with our customers.
- Delivery Issues or Service Outages – Customers who may experience an outage will be frantic to understand the cause, and could panic about non-payment issues. Proactive outage notification to mobile devices and clear outage maps and escalations from your main website delivers customer resolutions quickly and calm frayed nerves.
- Cyber Scams – Utilities enjoy the highest open rates for email and text messages among consumers, and cyber-criminals like to take advantage of that fact to scam your customers. Being proactive with outreach messaging though TXT and email letting your customers know about local scams and what to expect will take at least one worry off their minds. And, having trained customer service teams able to handle questions about scams quickly and efficiently recovers trust in the event that customers fall prey to cyber-crime.
- Hours of Operation – It’s nearly impossible to shift a customer care center to work-from-home conditions without affecting hours of operation. Be sure to update your IVR with clear and simple messaging letting customers know what to expect, including hold times and hours of service. Remind customers that email and chat may be available to help answer questions from the website to avoid long hold times, and to answer non-critical questions asynchronously. Email customer service allows your center to parse the questions, craft clear and efficient responses, and manage an email broadcast to answer large groups of customers consistently and effectively.
- Problem Solving Resources – We can safely predict that nearly all of our customers face similar challenges in the face of Coronavirus restrictions, so large groups of customers likely look for similar solutions. Customers in your area will need to know any local conditions related to travel, shopping, and testing. Links to local resources for food and available supplies will be helpful. Many customers working from home for the first time need technical support or faster Internet. If you have local resources or ecommerce portals, making those resources obvious will build awareness of your support services.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Lean into your website with updates on the landing pages and the mast-head wherever possible to alert customers to critical information. Clear and obvious links, especially for mobile users, helps customers depend on your information to help them.
- Avoid frequent email pushes to all of your customers at once. Every brand fills the inbox with COVID-19 related responses, so don’t expect email to be a proper alert medium amid the clutter. If you do depend on email for informative broadcasts, be sure to use the subject line appropriately letting customers know the urgency of your message. It’s a useful medium for changes to hours of operation or to alert customers to potential scams, but not for critical response information or to request immediate actions.
- Don’t forget social media, as important messages rise to the top of your customers’ social feeds. Use social posts to provide information and links to your website for important information, warn customer about scams, and make those messages easy for customers to share with their networks to spread your word broadly.
- Text messages should be used for alerts or critical information, especially where customer action is required, but be careful with content so that your texts don’t look like scams to customers. Announce on your website and perhaps with an email about why the utility would use SMS and what type of messages to expect to reduce concerns customers may experience with this media.
- Start thinking about getting back to normal. Now is the time to begin a plan for reestablishing normal digital dialogue with your customers to help them ease the transition back to normal after the COVID-19 restrictions lift and normal life reemerges. Customers will want information about catching up on any missed bills or saving money on their utilities. New services and promotions will lift to the top of their inbox, and every brand will be competing for your customers’ attention. Map out the nurture campaign goals and start building content to help customers adjust back to regular life.
Utilities play a critical role at times of local, regional, and national crises, and customers depend on clear, consistent, and reliable communication. Customers have plenty to worry about, so knowing that their utility has things under control, is available with answers, and can help solve predictable problems goes a long way to reducing anxiety in our communities and helping our customers manage these challenges.