Despite Outages, Customer Satisfaction with Electric Utilities Brightens
Improved communication in Web self-service and proactive outreach have bolstered customer sentiment, according to a J.D. Power study.
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Utilities have reported longer outages as a result of severe weather across the United States, but customer satisfaction with service providers has increased in the past year, according to the 2013 J.D. Power & Associates Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study. Overall satisfaction increased substantially in 2013, to 639 (on a 1,000-point scale), up 14 points from 2012.

Major reasons for the industry-wide surge were improvements in billing/payment, price, and customer notifications, according to the J.D. Power research. Electric utilities nationwide have improved their outage communications before, during, and after outages, which J.D. Power finds has a direct link to customer satisfaction levels. The utilities have gotten adept at proactively communicating outage information regularly and clearly via their customers' preferred channels, including phone calls, email, text messages, and social media sites, according to the research firm.

The study states that utilities increased their number of communications with customers regarding lengthy outages in 2013. The most satisfying sources of outage information were email (762), text messages (736), social media sites (724), and phone calls (718).

The J.D. Power study based its overall industry evaluations on six criteria: power quality and reliability; price; billing and payment; corporate citizenship; communications; and customer service.

In 2013, billing and payment satisfaction increased by 19 points, to 719, the largest increase among the six factors. According to the study, satisfaction increases when customers are offered a choice in how they receive bills and make payments.

Satisfaction scores in price rose 12 points, to 551. This comes as customers reported lower average monthly bills. Monthly payments in 2013 averaged $132, down $3 per month from 2012.

Power quality and reliability rose 15 points, to 692. Communications satisfaction increased for a third consecutive year, climbing to 585 in 2013, from 579 in 2012 and 575 in 2011. Customer service scores rose nine points, to 706, the highest they've been in the past four years.

"In addition to improving outage communication, electric utilities have made great strides in improving customer perceptions regarding billing and payment," explained Jeff Conklin, senior director of the energy practice at J.D. Power, in the survey report. "With such a dramatic increase in billing and payment satisfaction in the 2013 study, it's clear that the electric utilities have listened to the voice of the customer by providing [customers] with many choices to receive and pay their bills and with improved information on their billing statements."

But while the numbers bode well for the industry, Capgemini still reports plenty of room for improvement. The research and consulting firm cited a recent study that finds that more North American utilities need to make customer satisfaction and asset optimization priorities.

Utilities, the firm stated in its report, "will need to redesign current business processes and systems to leverage customer information and multiple communications channels.

"Enabling access to their social media channels via mobile devices will become an important bidirectional way for utilities to educate, motivate, and interact with customers, especially during outages," the report concludes.

Capgemini vice president Dave DuCharme notes that utilities have been successful so far "by being proactive, responsive, and innovative." Those same traits will have to be applied to their digital transformation, which he says "will require a commitment to evolving business and IT strategies to improve customer and operational engagement."

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