Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming various industries, including energy utilities, by offering innovative ways to improve the customer experience, enhance efficiency and streamline communications.

Our recent webinar, “Boost Customer Engagement with AI,” shared expert insights from Questline Digital’s Brian Lindamood, VP of Marketing and Content Strategy, and Zach Hardison, VP of Innovation. They explored how AI can be used tactfully by energy utilities to create personalized content, automate customer onboarding and support targeted communication campaigns for utility customers.

Lindamood reminded audience members that, “AI is a tool to improve our work, but still requires humans to operate and leverage results in a strategic way.”

Why We Care About AI Now

The growing interest in AI can be attributed to several factors that have made it more accessible, relatable, and widely adopted across industries, including energy utilities. These advancements have demystified AI and showcased its potential for enhancing efficiency, streamlining operations, and improving customer experiences.

Notably, AI is nothing new. Hardison shared that AI has been integrated for many years now, one example dating back to 2007 with Netflix’s ability to recommend “Top Picks for You” based on user preferences. He pointed out that the current buzz around AI stems from ChatGPT’s rise to fame in late 2022, thanks to its broad release and free public access.

“What this [public access] does is greatly remove the apprehension and barriers around AI,” says Hardison. “You can do things that are silly, you can do things that are professional. It reduces that apprehension. It reduces the fear factor that folks have around AI. And that’s why you’re suddenly seeing a lot more adoption because it has reduced the stigma and the barriers around AI.”

Benefits and AI Use Cases for Utilities

Hardison and Lindamood shared a variety of ways that AI can assist both outside and inside the energy utility industry.

“AI has been a boon in the fields of marketing and communications,” says Lindamood. “AI has the ability to analyze a vast amount of data, learn about customers’ preferences and behavior, and then help us personalize the customer experience to better meet their needs.”

One significant benefit of AI in the utility industry is its ability to share personalized content with customers based on their interests and engagement with previous communications. AI can be used to ensure that the right information reaches the right people at the right time, enhancing the overall customer experience.

Hardison shared an example of utilizing AI to create dynamic newsletters that send relevant content to customers based on their chosen preferences and interests. He shared that the importance of sending this customized content is to connect with customers in a way that shows your utility is listening.

Another valuable application of AI in the utility industry is its ability to identify characteristics that make customers eligible for programs like energy assistance, even if they are unaware of their eligibility. By using AI algorithms to analyze customer data, utility companies can proactively reach out to eligible customers and inform them about available aid.

One of the most immediate benefits of AI is its ability to scale up human efficiency. It excels at handling monotonous, repetitive, low-value tasks that would otherwise consume a significant number of human resources. By providing AI with boundaries and structure, it can operate within a defined scope, enhancing productivity without compromising on quality.

Limitations of AI for Utilities

It’s important to remember that artificial intelligence isn’t perfect. While AI offers numerous benefits to the energy utilities sector, it’s essential to recognize that the technology also has its limitations. By understanding these constraints, your utility can make informed decisions about AI implementation and manage expectations.

  1. Machines can’t understand user intent: AI can’t know for sure what a searcher wants; data will help improve algorithms but it will never be perfect
  2. AI doesn’t understand nuance: Computers see things in black and white and can’t offer perspectives from multiple lenses.
  3. AI-created content can be wrong, biased or misused: It needs to be fact-checked by humans.

Best Practices for Implementing AI in the Utility Industry

Chart showing best practices for using AI for utilities

To maximize the benefits of AI in the utility industry, it’s important to begin by following the data and using that information to guide your AI decisions. Consider the following template in analyzing the path for your AI strategy:

  1. Determine the use cases for AI and prioritize the data accordingly.
  2. Set clear business goals and metrics to measure success.
  3. Clean and explore data to see what opportunities rise to the surface and remove irrelevant data.
  4. Test and develop AI before putting it into production and maintain and review it regularly.
  5. Don’t get distracted by shiny new AI tools; be guided by business goals and objectives.

Remember, AI is a powerful tool that can greatly improve customer experiences and streamline operations, but it still requires human input and strategic thinking to be genuinely effective. You know your audience best. Use your human intelligence to guide the decision-making process and add AI when helpful to assist your strategy.

Want to use AI to improve customer engagement at your utility? Check out a demo of Questline Digital’s personalized newsletter solution.

Personalization can be a powerful force in helping energy providers build engaged relationships with customers. In fact, 55% of consumers believe that targeted communications create a more enjoyable experience.

By using data to personalize the customer experience, energy providers can achieve:

  • More effective marketing messages
  • Higher engagement rates
  • Increased program conversions

However, it’s important to remember privacy and security considerations when collecting and using data. Although customers expect relevant messages, they also expect their privacy to be respected and protected.

In Questline Digital’s webinar, “Data Privacy & Personalization,” our expert speakers, Brian Lindamood (Questline Digital) and Marianne Holohan (BlastPoint), shared insights into:

  • What is personalization
  • How personalization differs from segmentation
  • The benefits of personalization and segmentation for energy providers
  • Legal considerations and data privacy best practices
  • Examples of personalization in customer engagement campaigns

Personalization vs. Segmentation

“Personalization and segmentation work really well together,” Lindamood says. “Campaigns are most effective when you create segments based on the relevance of a program or the motivations those customers have, and then you personalize some piece of information for each customer within those segments.”

In the data privacy webinar, Lindamood explains that personalization is an engagement approach that treats customers as individuals. You do this by customizing the content, format or channel of messages for individual customers and you send relevant messages to customers based on:

  • Needs
  • Interests
  • Behaviors
  • Channel preferences

The benefits of personalization are expansive. Energy providers can achieve:

  • More effective marketing messages
  • Higher engagement rates
  • Increased program conversions
  • Build customer satisfaction through stronger digital relationships

Secure Data Analysis

“Many people think of segmentation as a one-and-done situation where you segment your customers broadly and then you use those segments over and over again to reach different objectives,” says Holohan. “However, we found that objective-driven segmentation is a much more effective personalization tool.”

Holohan shared BlastPoint’s process for secure data onboarding and analysis, including:

  • Review
  • Clean
  • Append
  • Analyze
  • Activate

She then described BlastPoint’s process. The first step is to collect and clean existing customer data. This is followed by enriching the data with external data sources and generating specific intelligence tied to the energy provider’s business goals. Last, the data and intelligence is put into action to achieve those objectives.  

Holohan also highlighted various third-party data information that can be used for personalization, such as

  • Residential demographics
  • Financial data
  • Media engagement
  • Psychographic data
Chart listing the third party data that can be used to personalize the customer experience for energy providers

Legal Considerations and Customer Expectations

When it comes to data privacy, there are a variety of legal considerations and processes for both incoming data and outgoing data.

Incoming data is defined as data that is purchased from third-party vendors. If the data is personally specific data, it’s important to ask the vendor to validate their permission to use the data. If it’s modeled or inferred data, it means the data is less accurate, so your organization shouldn’t rely too heavily on it.

Outgoing data is defined as sharing your customer data with third-party vendors. When doing this, Holohan suggests:

  • Limit the scope of the data being shared, especially if it includes personally identifiable information (PII)
  • Review vendors’ data security practices to ensure the legality (under GDPR) of transferring data.

In terms of information security, customers have high expectations for the privacy and security of their data, such as:

  • “Don’t leak my data”
  • “Don’t gather more than you need to know about me”
  • “The data you are gathering should benefit me, not annoy me”

To respect and meet these expectations, Holohan shared some best practices for using data in the data privacy webinar, including:

  • Validate third-party organizations’ security practices.
  • Use objective-driven, targeted segments for personalization instead of broad, multi-purpose segments.
  • Make data actionable with AI to ensure effective personalization practices.

Opportunities for Energy Providers to Personalize Communications

The data privacy webinar went beyond high-level definitions and shared real-world success stories. Lindamood and Holohan each shared examples for data privacy and personalization on various topics, including:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Electric vehicles
  • Payment assistance

For energy efficiency use-cases, Lindamood suggests:

  • Target users with relevant programs based on their interests
  • Segment based on past participation
  • Create messages that reflect their motivations or interests
  • Include personalized data, e.g. energy use
Examples of email marketing from energy provider using data personalization

He shared an example from a smart thermostat campaign. The utility used targeted messaging to segment and send emails to customers. One segmented message was about adopting a smart thermostat to help the environment, while the other pushed the benefits of saving money. By segmenting the messages, the utility found more success in its smart thermostat adoption program.

Holohan shared an example of BlastPoint’s process of working with a utility to increase engagement in its energy efficiency messaging. By acknowledging the utility’s goals of providing relevant programs and identifying income-eligible households, BlastPoint was able to gather and analyze data to assist in achieving these goals. They reviewed:

  • Internal residential data
  • Psychographic data
  • Demographic data

The data analysis led them to develop customer segments around energy efficiency, including income-eligible segments, and identify a target segment that had a high propensity to adopt efficiency measures. Using this technique and secure data access, the utility had 47% more income-eligible customers engaging in energy efficiency.

The Power of Data and Personalization

When done correctly, data-driven personalization can lead energy providers to achieving increased engagement and satisfaction among customers. The data privacy webinar highlighted the many impacts of data privacy and personalization.

Learn more about how Questline Digital can help your utility with targeted customer communications.

A full year of Apple’s privacy changes has come and gone, marketing texts are trending, chat boxes continue to pop up and voice search is making itself heard, among many other hot topics for utility marketers. Questline Digital’s experts weighed in on the top 10 email marketing trends and best practices for 2023 during a recent Plugged In webinar.

Brian Lindamood, VP of Marketing and Content Strategy, and Nina Cummins, Account Director, shared their insights and interpretations for the year ahead.

Top 10 Email Marketing Trends for 2023

  1. Increased use of interactive content
  2. A focus on key email metrics beyond open rate
  3. Privacy technologies and their impact
  4. The rise of SMS marketing
  5. Strategic push notifications
  6. The use of chatbots
  7. Voice search capabilities
  8. Self-service experiences
  9. Increases in video marketing
  10. Segmentation and personalization expansion

Marketing Manager Maureen Mierke and other special guests from Questline Digital also joined the webinar to offer their advice on interactive content, Apple’s Privacy Policy, SMS marketing, push notifications and video marketing.

A Look Back at 2022 Email Marketing Trends

Last November, Questline Digital’s webinar on Email Marketing Best Practices for 2022 forecasted trends for this past year. We took a look back at the top 10 trends we saw in 2022:

  1. Creating an improved after-sales experience
  2. Auditing and understanding your data
  3. Making more out of your newsletters
  4. Optimizing for all platforms
  5. Creating more interactive emails
  6. Ensuring your emails are accessible
  7. Showcasing user-generated content
  8. Utilizing preference centers
  9. Hyper-personalizing email campaigns
  10. Changes to open rates and privacy

“Certainly everything on this list was important in some way this year,” Lindamood said of the 2022 predictions. “Some of these things are still ramping up and will continue to be factors in the coming year.”

Lindamood reviewed the importance of creating an after-sales experience with customer onboarding and developing a personalized experience starting on day one of service. Additionally, he said that optimization “is about making your emails accessible and compatible across all devices.” This was an important focus this past year, especially with the growing use of dark mode, and Lindamood suspects it will only get more important as the year goes along.

Cummins shared that many clients she works with have done a lot of deep diving to better understand their data, including reviewing performance metrics for their emails, newsletters and social media. As expected, Apple’s Privacy Policy dominated many data analytics conversations in 2022 and Cummins expects this trend to continue into 2023.

A Look Forward to the Email Marketing Trends and Best Practices for 2023

Chart listing the top 10 email marketing trends for 2023

Increased use of interactive content

Lindamood began with a discussion on interactive content. “There’s no doubt that interactive content is popular with customers and is an effective way for marketers to share a message,” he said.

Interactive content can include games, quizzes, calculators, polls, surveys or a myriad of other content types, he added. “It can be any digital experience where there’s some back and forth. The user takes an action or provides some information and the content responds in some way.” This type of content, requiring active participation from the user, makes it more fun and engaging for customers to learn about complex energy topics.

Animation of interactive games a marketing trend for 2023

Cummins shared an important reminder that interactive content in emails is all about adding interest and visual movement so that messages stand out.

Joe Pifher, Questline Digital’s Creative Director, shared his take on whether utilities should jump on this trend. He said when it comes to interactive emails, “There’s not enough support for them. Right now, the email clients are dinosaurs. There are some that can handle it and some that can’t. And without having your list broken up for every email client, it’s not worth the time to put that in there.”

Animation of interactive emails a trend for 2023

Overall, we see the use of interactive content rising, as research shows it generates five times more views than static content. However, when it comes to interactive emails, we suggest keeping interactivity simpler, including some GIFs or movement. The key is using email as a way to drive clicks and visits to interactive content on your utility’s website or other platform.

Metrics beyond open rates

Apple’s Privacy Policy changed the way digital marketers see open rates. Where they used to be a strong indicator of engagement, open rates are no longer reliable or useful in analyzing the performance of campaigns.

Jeremy Harning, Questline Digital’s Vice President of Technology, explained a little more about the impact from his perspective. Most notably, he shared:

  1. Since September 2021, when Apple introduced its changes to email tracking, Questline Digital has seen an 11% inflation in open rates, from about 25% on average to about 36% overall.
  2. We have also seen about 34% of our opens overall get flagged as “machine read,” indicating they are being opened by Apple’s proxy servers.

With this information, Questline Digital recommends that utility marketers review other metrics tied more directly to the utility’s goals, such as:

  • Conversion rate
  • Enrollment numbers
  • Page clicks
  • Time on page

“Open rates can inform how we get to an action, but it’s not going to determine if your campaign was successful,” Lindamood said. “As an industry, we really need to get past open rates. They’re not reliable anymore.”

The rise of SMS marketing and push notifications

Cummins shared that she sees the rise in mobile communications as an answer to what customers want: multichannel marketing that reaches them in their preferred channels.

“We’re on email, we’re on social media, so text messaging only makes sense to be next,” she said. “It’s quick, direct, and research shows that 98% of all text messages are opened, and one in three consumers check their text notifications within one minute of receiving a text.”

Additionally, push notifications are another method customers prefer for staying up to date with company happenings.

Quotation about push notifications being a top marketing trend for 2023

The data speaks for itself: Customers expect these types of messages. The caveat, according to Cummins, is making sure that text messages and push notifications provide value to customers.

“Are push notifications going to provide value in some way to a customer’s life?” she asked. “If so, then they’re great. If not, then people aren’t going to care. They’ll turn notifications off and it’s as simple as that.”

Susan Kownacki, Questline Digital’s Vice President of Account Services, shared an additional reminder.

“While most utilities have already been doing transactional text messages around outage and billing alerts, marketing messages are relatively new to our space,” Kownacki said. “To make a successful leap to non-transactional SMS, it’s absolutely critical to get your customers to opt-in. Because if you don’t, fines are steep, as much as $1,500 per offense, which can add up quickly.”

Chatbots, voice optimization and self-serve

Chatbots and voice search were hot topics leading into the previous year, and they’ll continue to be important marketing trends for 2023. “I don’t think a lot of utilities are investing in either of these things at the level that we thought initially,” Cummins said, “but I do think they’re still very valid and useful options to keep in mind in the near future.”

Lindamood said that customer expectations will continue to grow in this area. He shared research from J.D. Power that found that chat is the leading digital contact method for online customers: 42% of customers prefer chat versus only 23% for email and 16% for social media.

“For utilities, any interaction that you’re having with customers over the phone could probably be accomplished more efficiently with a chatbot,” Lindamood said. “It’s certainly more cost-effective for you and most of your customers would prefer it that way.”

Additionally, Lindamood noted that there are many opportunities for utilities to enhance educational efforts with chat, such as answering customers’ questions about program promotions on your website or providing advice on rate plans.

When it comes to voice search and optimization, Lindamood said that the next generation of utility customers will be more inclined to use voice search, as it’s what they’ve been acclimated to growing up.

We suggest creating FAQ pages or other pages on utility websites that list common energy-related questions along with clear answers. These pages will help customers, and they will be easy for voice-activated search engines to find.

Voice capabilities are also great for making content accessible to all customers. Those who are visually impaired may prefer listening to an article, while many people use audio for convenience’s sake, listening to content as they work on other things. Lindamood shared these best practices to help users who prefer to listen to content:

  • Include alt text that describes any images on the page
  • Make sure text is text — not a JPEG of a headline — so the computer can read it
  • Embed audio players within the content itself

Whether customers prefer to chat with customer service representatives instead of call or they prefer to listen to content instead of read it, the modern customer experience demands that options are available and that the end user can ultimately choose their own preference. Don’t force them to communicate in one specific way with your utility.

Increases in video marketing

Matt Irving, Questline Digital’s Creative Director of Video Content, shared the importance of video marketing, including its ability to capture attention, simplify complex topics and make an idea memorable and entertaining. When creating videos, he reminds utilities to think about the audience.

“Video content can do a lot of things. I like to say it’s part of a complete breakfast. It provides a big oomph, it can cover a lot of areas and it can have a really big impact. But it’s not the best choice for everything,” Irving said. “A video, or any content for that matter, should be relevant. It should be relevant to the consumers, it should be relevant to the space you’re talking to the consumers in and it should be relevant to you.”

Quotation about the importance of video marketing as a trend for 2023

Video is already the most popular and preferred content format for all customers, and it’s only going to grow. According to the Content Marketing Institute, video is going to be the “it” content for 2023, given that 78% of marketers plan to invest in video in the new year.

Segmentation and personalization expansion

Segmentation and personalization have been high-profile email marketing trends in 2022, and Lindamood and Cummins agreed that will continue into 2023. “If utilities haven’t started looking into segmentation, then they’re going to, and if they have then they’re going to push the boundaries more and see what they can accomplish,” Cummins said. “I think it’s really going to be a top priority in 2023.”

“Personalization is the thread that ties together a lot of the email marketing trends that we talked about,” Lindamood added. “I think it’s going to be the longest-lasting trend we’ve discussed. We’re still near the beginning of a big shift toward personalization and it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Personalized and segmented messages make those types of communications immediate, tangible and accessible to customers. Questline Digital expects to see more of this as we use customer data and preferences to personalize the experience they have with their utility.

New Year, New Opportunities, New Email Marketing Trends

Quotation about TikTok being an important digital marketing trend for 2023

Of all the email marketing trends and best practices discussed, Cummins shared that data is a low-hanging fruit. Utilities should focus on cleaning and using their data in new ways, including segmentation and personalization, to better reach and communicate with customers.

Additionally, Lindamood suggested that TikTok needs to become a priority for utilities in the new year and beyond. “Utilities really need to start taking TikTok seriously,” he said. “The thing about TikTok is it’s not just popular among certain customers watching videos, they’re also using it as a search engine. They are finding answers on TikTok, and as a utility, you need to be there answering their energy questions. As an industry, we need to start communicating with the TikTok audience in their preferred channel.”

Stay ahead of the latest email marketing trends with a customer engagement strategy from Questline Digital.

High bill communications is a hot topic (pun intended) for utilities everywhere. Extreme temperatures have impacted billing communications in a big way as scorching summers and frigid winters hit customers’ energy bills. How your utility communicates seasonal costs directly impacts customer satisfaction.

In Questline Digital’s webinar, “Strategies for High Bill Communications,” our expert speakers, Morgan Kriley with Duquesne Light Company and Shantel Johnson with Entergy, shared insights and advice from their own experience with high bill communications.

Become a Trusted Partner for Your Utility’s Customers

Kriley shared early in the discussion that Duquesne Light Company’s (DLC) focus was on being a “Trusted Energy Partner.” With this goal in mind, DLC set out to help its customers with the mission to:

  • Provide good value
  • Charge fair prices
  • Be honest and transparent

DLC’s approach to assisting customers with high bills came down to three goals:

  1. Identify the main factors driving a high bill
  2. Utilize customer insights and persona groups
  3. Develop multichannel campaigns to educate customers

By homing in on these goals, DLC developed four targeted approaches to assisting customers:

Customer choice

“Under Pennsylvania’s Electric Choice Act, customers can choose or shop for a supplier that provides their electricity, which impacts the supply portion of their bill,” Kriley explained. “While it’s not mandatory for customers to shop for a supplier, they can choose the company based on factors such as savings, clean energy sources, and fixed and variable rates.”

As an electric distribution company, DLC is neutral as to whether a customer wants to shop for suppliers. Through its research, though, DLC discovered that 80% of its customers were paying above the default service rate. With these insights, DLC identified an opportunity to initiate conversations about customer choice and educate customers about their options and the impact on their monthly bills.

DLC communicated this information through:

  • Website tutorials, videos and FAQs
  • Targeted email communications
  • Social and display ad campaigns
  • Newsletter features
Example of utility email strategies for high bill communications from DLC

Changing energy rates

In June 2022, DLC had two energy rate increases occur that impacted customers. The utility knew customers would be comparing their bills to the previous year’s bills and wanted to get ahead of the discussion.

“The honesty and transparency piece played a major role in this campaign,” Kriley said. DLC created web resources, such as a website banner and resource hub, in addition to developing social media posts and newsletter features to explain the increased rates. Each resource directed customers to a link that explained why energy prices were rising and what customers could do to help lower their costs.

Example of email from utility strategies for high bill communications

Energy efficiency management

Through recent research, DLC learned that half of its customers actively monitor their electric usage in the hopes of reducing their usage. “They’re closely monitoring their thermostat and using lights and electronics very cautiously,” Kriley said. “Customers really want to know how to best use their energy and when.”

Kriley shared that DLC consistently shares educational materials with customers about energy efficiency and energy savings. In a recent survey, a DLC customer specifically asked, “How can I make my home more efficient for the least amount of money?”

The utility promotes its energy efficiency content in social media posts, newsletters and targeted emails. Additionally, customers receive a usage email each week that lets them compare their usage from the week prior and provides a projected view of their monthly usage.

To assist with these initiatives, DLC also provided free energy efficiency kits to residential customers. The kit included LED light bulbs and night lights.

Example of digital ad from DLC utility strategies for high bill communications

High bill management

As high bills occurred in full force, DLC began seeing more calls to its call centers from customers inquiring about their bills. Kriley shared that the driver of DLC’s high bill communications was empathy, followed by education and action-oriented steps.

“In this email campaign, DLC recognized its responsibility to our customers and, again, utilized the ‘Trust Energy Partner’ message to show customers that we were transparent about the changing energy rates,” Kriley said. “We wanted to provide customers with valuable strategies to manage their current bill and reduce their usage for future bills.”

DLC provided the same resources to customers in a self-serve channel. This gave customers the opportunity to freely find answers and solutions in their own time. “This campaign was a testament to the importance of reaching the right customer at the right time,” Kriley says.

Stepping Up Your High Bill Communications Strategies

Johnson shared ways in which Entergy was taking steps to assist residential customers who may see high bills during summer months in the Southeast. The utility developed a focus and motto for its high bill work: “Temps are up. Costs are up. So we’re stepping up.”

“Our customer strategy leaders gathered a large group of us together to ideate programs that would make a meaningful difference to customers during this time,” Johnson shared.

In addition to its usual bill assistance programs, Entergy began offering new solutions for high summer bills, including:

  • Late fee credits
  • Moratorium on disconnects
  • $10 million in donations
  • Credit card fee credits
  • Energy efficiency events
  • Early security deposit returns

The above services differed slightly based on what service area customers were in, as Entergy serves Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The programs were nuanced based on the customers’ needs as well as the state regulatory environment.

One of Entergy’s most popular programs was created from $10 million in shareholder donations. This was a one-time, $150 bill credit for qualifying customers. To qualify, customers must have had a total household income of up to 250% of the federal poverty level. This was a part of the targeting criteria that Entergy used to ensure the utility reached the right customers with the right messages. Entergy also partnered with local non-profits, including the United Way, to help distribute those funds.

The online application process for this opened at 9 a.m. on launch day and by 4 p.m. all of the funds had been distributed. To avoid any surprises, customers were aware that this was on a first-come, first-served basis. This was a successful program for Entergy and spoke to the need of its communities.

All hands on deck

For the strategy and execution of its programs, Johnson explained, “This was an all-hands-on-deck effort. I was seven weeks into the job when this call was made, and we gathered together to talk about what programs might be offered and discuss the marketing strategy to reach customers.”

Entergy also implemented customer surveys that are conducted each week to a random selection of 30,000 customers. The purpose of these surveys is to find out what messages and programs are resonating with customers. Additionally, the utility has done mass-marketing efforts to spread the word about its programs, including producing a commercial to play during the New Orleans Saints’ NFL games.

“The goal overall was to drive awareness of the new solutions that we offered to customers during this difficult time,” Johnson said.

Entergy utilized many direct-to-customer channels, such as email, phone calls and text messaging to reach customers. A part of Entergy’s email campaign messaging was to reiterate the new solutions for high summer bills. The utility’s emails performed exceedingly well with a near-54% open rate — well above Entergy’s average 35% open rate, Johnson shared.

Email example of strategies for high bill communications from utility

Additionally, as programs continue to be rolled out, Entergy ensures its call center representatives are well-informed of the programs and services. The utility sends near-daily updated talking points to its call center with the latest information on programs for each state.

Collaboration is Key for Successful High Bill Communications Strategies

A critical element for both Duquesne Light Company and Entergy’s strategies was keeping an open line of communication, not only between utility employees but between the utility and its customers. Kriley and Johnson both emphasized the importance of honesty and transparency throughout all high bill communications.

“Collaboration is always key as we embark on crisis communication strategies like these,” Johnson says.

Learn more about how Questline Digital can help your utility with customer assistance solutions and high bill communications.

Power outages can occur at any time for any reason, whether due to severe weather, equipment failure or even animal obstruction. Your customers look to your utility for outage updates. That’s why proactive emergency communications are key.

In Questline Digital’s webinar, “Proactively Engage Customers with Emergency Communications,” Vonetta Burrell, Manager of Corporate Communications at Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), and John Bord, Manager of Customer Experience at Tucson Electric Power (TEP), share how to prepare customers before, during and after severe weather events with emergency communication strategies.

Different Customers, Different Emergency Communications Channels

Every customer is unique, as is the utility that serves them. For Belize Electricity Limited, Belize is considered both a Central American and Caribbean nation, with a population of over 400,000. BEL serves 170,000 customers of varying cultures. Burrell says, “This is important to know because what might work for one customer may not work for another.”

Burrell explains that in urban areas of Belize, they tend to like social media updates from the utility. In other areas, radio is the best form of communication because customers may not have consistent internet. For others, direct SMS communication is most effective.

“These are things we consider to ensure that we are reaching the right audience using channels that are preferred by them,” Burrell says.

BEL has a number of drivers that encourage proactive notifications, including their commitments to both regulators and customers. Additionally, they have set standards for the timeliness of the utility’s internal communications and customer notifications.

“We are required to make sure we are issuing notifications in a timely manner, whether these are planned or unplanned or emergency scenarios,” Burrell says. “As a company, we also have implemented our internal standards to make sure we are holding ourselves at an even higher level in terms of timeliness of communication.”

Typically, BEL strives to inform customers at least two business days ahead of planned outages and within 15 minutes of unplanned outages, events or emergencies. The utility primarily uses SMS for initial contact with customers, but they also share updates on the mobile app, website and even a Facebook group. This group allows customers to have two-way communications with the utility.

“It’s not always about what you want to tell your customers,” Burrell says. “They may have valuable information to share with you as well.”

Flow chart showing information flow for emergency communications plan

Engage with customers across channels

BEL considers its wide range of communication channels instrumental to engaging with customers. The utility utilizes a variety of platforms, including:

  • Social media
  • SMS
  • Mobile app
  • Direct calls
  • Website
  • Radio
  • Television
  • Newspaper
Example of emergency communications alert messages

Burrell encourages utilities to use social media as a two-way communication method.

“While you may be opening up yourself for more comments, more negativity, more criticism, it also helps you to understand your audience,” she says. “While it may seem like chatter or complaints, it’s actually helping to determine what do we need to address, what do we need to improve, what are the educational messages that we’re not doing enough of. Sometimes it gets sticky, sometimes it gets rough, but it’s better to have a response rather than leave comments unanswered.”

Apart from internal channels, Burrell stresses the importance of developing relationships with external stakeholders, such as the media or online influencers, well in advance of emergencies. She explained that people will listen to those they trust, which may not always be the utility itself. Having ambassadors share the utility’s message in a timely, accurate matter is imperative to connecting with customers.

Every Minute Counts for Effective Emergency Communications

For Tucson Electric Power, the utility knows the typical timing of its storm and outage seasons, making it possible for the utility to educate customers in advance. Bord says that their typical outages occur between June and September. June often sees extreme heat outages, while the other months see increased rain, lightning and wind outages.

Bord shared that TEP has learned from research that customers have three main outage questions:

  • What is the estimated time of restoration?
  • What is the cause?
  • Have work crews been dispatched?

According to TEP, following through with appropriate answers to these questions helps customers feel relieved and in-the-know. Additionally, TEP encourages sharing helpful information with customers, such as:

  • Number of customers impacted
  • Acknowledgment of lost power
  • What time the outage began
Example of emergency communications alert message from an energy utility

TEP uses its outage map to keep customers informed. Within the map, customers can click on various outage areas and immediately find out:

  • Start time
  • Status
  • Customers out of service
  • Customers restored
  • Cause
  • Estimated time of restoration
Example of emergency communications outage map

“We really want to keep our resources in front of the customers, remind them of the summer storm season and drive customers to the outage map to reduce calls to the contact center,” Bord says. Additionally, TEP deploys newsletters and sponsors local TV weather spots to share information.

Research shows customers only want one or two updates regarding the estimated time of restoration. “Satisfaction declines if you do three or four updates,” Bord says. “It creates uncertainty and stress.”

Example of reporting metrics showing performance of emergency communications strategy

TEP also attributes its emergency communication strategies to its customer journey mapping progress. “We conducted journey mapping to look at the current and future states of outages and residential versus business expectations,” Bord says. “Journey mapping really brought our cross-functional teams together to have more of an indication and wider lens of looking at an outage.”

This also led to producing more extensive pre-emergency planning and communications for customers. “If an outage were to happen, it’s almost like creating a strategic playbook,” Bord says. “Everybody knows what, when, where and how to address that situation.”

As TEP works to advance its pre-emergency planning, the utility is also working on more customer-friendly messaging. “Sometimes, putting some of our utility speak or terminology on an outage map doesn’t mean anything to the customer,” Bord explains. “Is there a better way to phrase an equipment failure and if it causes an outage, what’s the best way to communicate that?”

Positive Outcomes for Negative Events

Both Burrell and Bord emphasized that clear, consistent and proactive messaging is critical. “People have too many things on their mind in an emergency,” Burrell says. “You want to make sure that you are specific, clear, easy-to-understand and consistent.”

Even when outages arise, Burrell encourages humanizing the situation and reminding customers that real people are involved. This helps to not just share a blanketed response with customers, but to bring a human element as well.

“An outage is a negative event, but it’s also a great opportunity for a utility to shine,” Bord says, “to show our customers how great we perform when there’s an issue so that we can really move the needle on customer satisfaction.”

Questline Digital can help your energy utility prepare an effective emergency communications strategy.