UTILITIES ARE ACCUSTOMED TO RECEIVING negative feedback when it comes to rate increases, power outages and what is sometimes perceived as lackluster customer service. It's a fact of life that utilities live with, and one that isn't likely to change.
What is changing is the way that utilities are dealing with customer complaints and concerns. Utilities are flocking to social media avenues like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to respond to angry customers and to set the record straight when incorrect information spreads to the Web.
Opening a dialogue
After a group of 100 or so customers organized a peaceful demonstration to protest a series of rate hikes in 2009, Spokane, Wash.-based Avista used the incident to roll out a social media campaign. The customer protest was organized over the Internet, and "we didn't have any way to help facilitate the online dialogue happening before the protest," said Dan Kolbet, a communications manager at Avista.
That event spearheaded the utility's social media strategy, which now includes a blog page, an interactive e-mail program for customers to reach out to the utility, and a Twitter account. Avista is working on deploying its Facebook page.
The goal behind Avista's blog is to allow customers to discuss any and all topics, such as rate increases, where energy comes from, or new wind or hydro projects. No subject is off limits for customers who log in to the blog through their customer account.
"We're trying to engage the customer," said Kolbet. "A lot of utilities have created blogs that are pretty much centered on energy efficiency or environmental concerns and they stay within those boundaries. We wanted to use our blog as a tool to tell our own story to our customers, regardless of the topic, even if sometimes those topics are not our favorite things to talk about, such as rate increases or executive compensation."
Turning rants into raves
The Avista blog averages about 2,000 hits per month. In addition, just under 2,000 customers subscribe to the utility's two Twitter feeds. That represents a fraction of Avista's customer base of 350,000, but increasingly more people are turning to social media to get their news, and the utility is noticing a difference in customer service levels and the number of calls fielded by its customer service team.
Recently, a customer who was frustrated with her bill posted an online rant about the utility through her Twitter feed. The Tweet caught the attention of Kolbet, and Avista's customer service team reached out to the customer immediately. The issue was quickly resolved.
"She was basically dealing with some misinformation, and we decided to be pro-active and reach out to her," said Kolbet. "She was venting, but she ended up putting out a new Tweet about how appreciative she was of Avista and that we solved her problem. She was pleasantly surprised."
Monitoring for misinformation
Avista is using social media to its advantage in several ways. For example, when the utility filed for its last rate increase, Avista sent out a traditional press release, but also had prepared a blog post that was released just prior to the press release. When local media outlets picked up the press release, most referred their readers back to the Avista blog for more information. So, in effect, Avista's media campaign served to send people back to its own blog site.
In addition, Avista monitors articles that appear about the utility in local newspapers, including the online conversations that customers start after reading an article. Avista often will join in the discussion to curb what is in many cases misinformation being created in those discussions.
"Customers may not understand the topic or are sharing information that just isn't true," said Avista director of corporate communications Linda Jones. "So our goal is to correct the information and then redirect them back to our blog where they can see our side of the story on that topic."
Blending social with traditional
While social media is far from becoming the dominant means of communicating with customers, Kolbet believes that social is blending in with Avista's traditional Web presence. "Customers who go to your Web site expect some sort of interaction with you instead of just reading content or sending you an e-mail," he said.
On that note, Avista rarely deals with outage information on its Twitter page because of the near real-time outage information it provides on its Web site, which is also available as a mobile phone app for customers without power. By visiting that part of the Web site, a customer can determine if an outage has been reported. An interactive map provides a timeline for when power will be restored. Electronic media use the Avista Web site outage map during their news broadcasts.
As a result of the outage information system, Avista has been able to reduce the number of media calls that it receives from 1,200 a year to just over 300.
"Since we launched our social media outreach in 2009, our customer satisfaction scores have increased quite a bit," said Jones. "The objective was to meet our customers where they gather. They were having online conversations about Avista and we were not present. We wanted to be included, and rather than have this being a rant and rave kind of dialogue, we established our blog to make it a more personal experience."