Warm up the energy industry with a customer-centric approach


I’m going to start this out with a harsh truth that might be hard for some in the industry to hear—people don’t like their energy company.

There, I said it.

Actually, the relationship is interesting in that they don’t necessarily dislike their energy company either. For decades, the monthly energy bill (and the faceless entity who sends it) has been little more than a cold, emotionless necessity. An obligatory transaction to keep the lights on and the food from spoiling. But that’s changing.

The energy services industry is entering a new era. No longer are providers simply responsible for the reliable generation and delivery of power, but for helping all of us use it more wisely. They’re expected to play an active, more visible role in all aspects of energy efficiency, from partnering with the government and private sector to tap into renewable energy sources, to helping customers identify and understand their wasteful everyday habits. Expectations have been raised, and competition has increased as a result.

So how do utility companies that, as their name suggests, have been built more around function than feeling, meet these evolving, more relationship-driven demands? A strategy that’s continuing to gain momentum is employing a customer-centric approach.

Admittedly, putting the customer first is not a revolutionary concept. But it’s an idea that’s relatively new to the energy services industry. To be effective, it has to go deeper than a cosmetic softening of tone and language (using “you” and “we” instead of “customer” and “company”) and a redesigned bill with a light-hearted newsletter.

To truly take a customer-centric approach, you need to create a customer-centric brand. You need to understand that every customer experience, interaction, conversation, and perception is a reflection of that brand. You need to be customer-focused to the core of your company.

Like I said, this approach is relatively new to energy service providers. But there are a ton of great companies in other industries doing customer-centric right. Brand Cool recently cohosted a webinar through the Association of Energy Services Professionals (AESP) on this very topic, during which we referenced a handful of examples. To see a replay of the webinar in its entirety, click here.

The first example was, of course, Apple. After all, we’re an advertising agency. We are morally obligated to reference Apple each and every time the topics of brand or customer experience are mentioned or alluded to, no matter how briefly.

A more relevant example in the context of energy might be Zappos. While online shoe stores and energy service providers may not typically be thought of as interchangeable, they do have an awful lot in common. Both sell a relatively commoditized product in that neither offers something you can’t get somewhere else, neither has a storefront or lots of customer interaction, and direct contact typically only occurs when there’s a problem. So how do they achieve an example-worthy level of customer centricity? By boiling down everything they do to three core values:

  1. Deliver “wow” through service.
  2. Embrace and drive change.
  3. Create fun and a little weirdness.

That last one is not a typo. “Weirdness” is listed as a component of their core values. But it works. They make customer service the center of their business, which in this case means not only helping customers with problems, but also ensuring there aren’t problems in the first place and delivering a little fun along way. If you want evidence of the fun personality they so embrace, check out the video below.

Zappo’s commercials showcase the company’s fun personality, highlighting their commitment to customer service.

Another great example of a company that’s doing customer-centric right is Warby Parker.

Shopping for eyeglasses isn’t always an enjoyable experience, for a number of reasons. It’s typically a purchase borne of necessity, they’re typically expensive, and finding the perfect pair can be extremely time-consuming. Warby Parker keeps these customer concerns in mind throughout every step of their customer experience.

You’re able to browse frames via their mobile-friendly website and pick your top five, which they ship directly to your home free of charge so you can enjoy a trial period before making your final decision. If your shopping style is more digital than hands-on, you can upload a picture of yourself and “try them on” right on their website. Customer convenience remains the priority.

And in addition to making it their mission to keep the price of eyeglasses reasonable, they also donate a pair to a person in need for every pair you purchase. Customers are able to save money and feel good about their decision to do business with Warby Parker, a fact they’ll likely share with their friends, family, and everyone else via social media.

Getting weird and hosting online fashion shows is great for selling shoes and eyeglasses. But what does a customer-centric approach look like in the energy services industry? The quick (and easy) answer is: whatever you want it to, as long as you build your strategy on these two pillars:

  1. Make it friction-free. Remove all the inconveniences and unnecessary steps from a typical customer interaction. Make information easy and instantaneous. Understand and anticipate where your customers may experience difficulty and stress; then remove the difficulty and stress. All the forms, programs, requirements, rules, and regulations make the energy industry complex. Don’t accept this as a non-negotiable norm. Simplify and add flexibility wherever you can.
  2. Make it emotionally rewarding. This sounds daunting in the context of energy services. How can you get people to connect with energy? That’s just it. Your customers aren’t connecting with energy; they’re connecting with what that energy allows them to do and the people who represent the company that supplies it. Be compassionate, interested, funny. Make interactions as enjoyable as possible, even when they begin tense. Keep your promises. And above all, just be human.

One final thought before this blog winds its way to a close: simple isn’t always easy.

The characteristics of customer centricity and the tactics described above are rooted in common sense and the commandments of marketing. But there’s no switch to flip. No magic bullet that makes an energy provider customer-friendly. It’s a commitment that’s made through every level of the organization, a set of values that every employee believes and lives by.