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How utilities can tap social media to develop a satisfying customer experience

Product Marketing Manager, IBM Analytics, IBM

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Do you remember how your utility company used to communicate with you? You might recall brochures stuffed into an envelope along with your monthly bill, but such methods are becoming obsolete as utilities enter the age of social media. Utilities are increasingly using Twitter to enter into conversation with customers, and company Facebook pages are now helping consumers learn about efficient energy use even as they compete for prizes. And use of social media need not stop there—some utilities go the extra mile and post photos of company events and crews working in the field to Flickr and Instagram and similar videos to YouTube, all with an eye to enhancing customer relations.

Customer satisfaction begins with social media

Utilities’ perspective on social media is radically changing. No longer does use of social media provide only minor benefits, such as the ability to release news releases and marketing messages. Social media is more integral to customer satisfaction than ever before, and many utility companies now use social media as their primary contact point. Indeed, in markets in which customers can choose their own power companies, some utilities that take advantage of social media have been able to cut customer turnover by as much as 20 percent.

But social media also allows consumers to air their views to a wide audience at will. Because electricity, gas and water are essential features of modern life, customers who experience difficulty maintaining access to them can quickly become discontented. However, the same social media outlets that allow customers to voice their displeasure can also help utility companies turn the situation to their benefit.

Social media analytics lays the foundation for success

Turning bad publicity into good customer relations can be difficult even at the best of times, but savvy energy companies can use social media analytics to their advantage:

  • Analyze Twitter to evaluate customer service performance.
    If you want to know how customers feel about your company, start by conducting a sentiment analysis on Twitter. Short of placing a telephone call, customers of utilities have no more direct link with their provider than through Twitter. Not surprisingly, then, a sentiment analysis can provide insight into how customer service channels measure up to the competition’s.
     
  • Identify potential causes of churn.
    In a world of price comparison sites and consumer forums, no utility can afford to ignore customer churn. What’s more, customers aren’t switching merely for reasons of economy—their move to another provider can be motivated by things such as frustration at poor customer service or anger about a company’s political alignment. By monitoring and measuring customer discussions on channels such as Twitter and consumer forums, companies can discover the real reasons why customers are considering switching providers.
     
  • Keep in touch with customers during power outages.
    Some companies say that staying in contact with customers during power outages helps them quickly pinpoint and fix problems. Moreover, when landlines and home computers are down, utilities can use Twitter to keep their customers informed of developments. Because use of social media sites surges during power outages and other crises, utilities can use social media such as Twitter to not only help customers stay in touch with their utility, but also help area media and local politicians spread the message to a wider audience.
     
  • Encourage customers to do the right thing.
    Many utilities have difficulty enrolling customers in energy efficiency and demand response programs. And indeed, merely promoting such programs through the company website is so passive an approach as to be ineffectual. Instead, companies can use social media to tell people, for example, that “X percent of residents in your neighborhood have signed up”—certainly an easier sell. What’s more, utilities can use social media as a vehicle for messages about energy-efficient practices and outage repair, helping customers manage and benefit from their relationship with energy and the utilities that provide it.
     
  • Enhance marketing opportunities.
    Consider how visitors to the ComEd Facebook page can interactively review a sample customer bill, helping the company reimagine the layout of its customer bills. And this is only a start.
    In Vancouver, BC, for example, BC Hydro targeted young customers using a series of YouTube videos that featured NBA star Steve Nash, who grew up in British Columbia; the videos highlight ways of saving energy and publicize an iPhone battery management app. Similarly, San Francisco–based Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a unit of PG&E Corp., maintains a blog called Currents on which it posts several times daily about local news, community initiatives and energy-saving tips.

Are you curious about you can use social media to provide a firm foundation for your company’s success? See how IBM Analytics solutions can help utilities digitally engage with their customers.