The changing electric industry landscape has compelled many public power utilities to take a more in-depth look at how satisfaction and preferences are changing among their customers. Two public power organizations, ElectriCities of North Carolina and Turlock Irrigation District in California, took on customer survey projects in 2017, working through GreatBlue Research.
GreatBlue Research is the exclusive market research partner of Hometown Connections, the utility services subsidiary of the American Public Power Association. GreatBlue’s experience in survey instrument design provides its clients with reliable, actionable research and analytics to help them identify and address needs, improve offerings to their customers, and better communicate with their key constituents.
ElectriCities of North Carolina
For more than 50 years, ElectriCities of North Carolina has helped North Carolina public power utilities provide safe, reliable and affordable power to more than 1.2 million customers. ElectriCities is a marketing partner of Hometown Connections.
ElectriCities commissioned GreatBlue Research to conduct a statewide telephone survey of public power, rural electric cooperative, and investor-owned utility residential and commercial customers, including surveys focused within the service territories of participating public power utilities. By combining customer opinion data for individual utilities with aggregate data from across the state, ElectriCities helped its members to gain a deeper understanding of their utility’s strengths and weaknesses and how to plan for a successful future.
The primary goals of this study were to assess how public power systems in North Carolina are serving their customers, identify opportunities for improvement, and evaluate the appeal of potential new programs and services. The study also provided benchmarks for continuous improvement including baseline measurements for overall customer satisfaction and customer awareness of public power.
“ElectriCities selected GreatBlue to conduct the research because we value the firm’s extensive experience in public power, as well as its relationship with Hometown Connections,” said Kelsey Lawhead, Product Marketing Specialist. “We focused very specifically on gathering useful information that utilities can use for strategic planning and improving customer relations, as well as information they can share with their employees and leadership to guide and motivate them.”
The areas of investigation included:
- Rating the organizational performance metrics of the utility
- Satisfaction with customer service personnel
- Top expectations of the utility and meeting those expectations
- Preferred methods of communication
- Importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency
- Interest in programs and services that could be offered through utilities
- Awareness and importance of publicly or municipally-owned utilities
- Demographic profile of respondents
As part of its benchmarking goals for the research, ElectriCities asked GreatBlue to include ten questions from a 2014 utility research study conducted by the Smart Energy Consumers Collaborative (SECC). These questions would help audiences better understand the business impact of customer segmentation strategies employed by utilities in the United States. This national segmentation study is conducted regularly and segments are integrated into many other SECC studies. This allows ElectriCities and its participating members to connect national research to their own communities and build a foundation for translating national research to their own local environment.
“GreatBlue did an incredible job of managing input on the questionnaires from our agency and from our 10 participating member cities,” said Lawhead. “The GreatBlue team is flexible and service focused, working diligently with us to create a customized survey instrument.”
Participating ElectriCities members received their individual survey results and the aggregate statewide results collected by ElectriCities. Highlights of the findings for public power in North Carolina include a nearly 86 percent customer satisfaction rating, outperforming the national averages of public power systems and regional IOUs. Customers praised the high reliability of the public power utilities, as well as the performance of customer service personnel.
The research highlighted some very clear realities about the electric utility business. “To put it succinctly, no one likes to write checks for utility service, and defining value can be a challenge,” said Lawhead. “Nearly 60 percent of customers do not recognize the term ‘smart meter’ but that does not mean they do not value the programs smart meters enable. Because customers are interested in renewable energy but not necessarily in paying for it, there may be value in the utility educating customers on energy efficiency or other responsible energy practices.”
Only 55 percent of public power respondents to the ElectriCities statewide survey could correctly identify that they resided in a public power community. “To help ensure our communities remain committed to being served by public power, we need to work on public power education,” said Lawhead. “We had some participating cities with much higher scores, and they tended to demonstrate a higher overall satisfaction score. Moving forward, we hope to identify best practices that other members can utilize within their communities in building the awareness and value of public power.”
The GreatBlue surveys measured communications preferences, with customers citing the utility website and bill stuffers as effective touch points. Many customers are already paying their bills online or interested in doing so. Residential customers expressed a strong interest in energy efficiency rebates, energy audits, and smart thermostat programs.
As part of its service, GreatBlue offers specific guidance on next steps for each utility, including advice on how to share the survey results with customers and city officials.
“We feel that it’s important to share the key survey findings with everyone on the utility staff,” said Lawhead. “Everyone at the utility should feel proud that customers appreciate their hard work and good service. And this can help them see that each employee is responsible for fostering a culture of excellence in customer service.”
Seamus McNamee, GreatBlue’s Senior Director of Research, advises, “Don’t be afraid to share results with your co-workers. As you consider internal changes to process, procedures, and communication, pointing to data that suggests or dictates these changes can only help employees buy into action.”
ElectriCities is planning to conduct another round of customer satisfaction surveys with GreatBlue in 2018 and then will likely continue on a two-year cycle going forward.
Turlock Irrigation District
The Turlock Irrigation District (TID) provides electricity to more than 98,000 accounts and irrigation water to 150,000 acres of farmland in California. TID was the first publicly owned irrigation district in the state and is only one of four in the state today that also provides electric retail energy directly to homes, farms, and businesses. In 2015 and 2017, TID commissioned GreatBlue to conduct comprehensive research among its customers to gain a deeper understanding into perceptions of the utility, its service, resources, and rates.
The primary goal of this research was to assess the effectiveness of TID’s ability to more clearly understand and ultimately set customer expectations, act on near-term opportunities for improvement, and create a strategic roadmap to improve performance. The areas of investigation included:
- Perception of area utilities
- Satisfaction with, and perceptions of, TID
- Satisfaction with customer service
- Satisfaction with billing
- Opinions regarding potential strategic initiatives
- Perceptions of renewable energy and a community solar program
- Interest in engaging with addition products/services from the utility
- Demographic profile of respondents
“TID staff made the decision to measure customer perception and satisfaction while we were moving through a strategic planning process for our utility,” said Michelle Reimers, Assistant General Manager, External Affairs. “To make decisions about future projects and plans, we wanted a baseline measurement of how we were meeting or not meeting our customers’ wants and needs.”
Reimers noted, “TID partnered with Hometown Connections to develop its 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, and we were pleased with the planning, detail, and discussion facilitated by Hometown staff. As a result, TID took the recommendation from Hometown Connections to work with their partner, GreatBlue Research.”
“GreatBlue was amazing,” Reimers added. “They made the entire process seamless. Initially, I assumed that conducting a satisfaction survey would require a lot of time and effort and that couldn’t be further from the truth, thanks to GreatBlue. The survey design and implementation went smoothly. GreatBlue presented the results in a clear, concise report. They used several graphs to articulate the data in a way that can resonate with the public and with the TID Board of Directors. They provided feedback and advice for how to improve in some areas. We valued receiving this input from a neutral third party’s perspective.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Product Marketing Specialist
ElectriCities of North Carolina
Assistant GM, External Affairs
Turlock Irrigation District