Three issues ago, I wrote about presenting a more customer friendly utility bill. This led a reader to ask “You advocate no-nonsense, tough policies with customers and yet, you write about being ‘customer friendly.’ How do you reconcile those two positions?”
We often read about “corporate culture” in the business world. I believe that utilities can effectively fashion an organizational culture that includes sound (some would say “tough”) business practices and policies while still being customer friendly.
Adopt sound business practices and policies
Most utilities, whether government agencies, non-profit entities or for-profit enterprises, operate as monopolies. This means your customers can’t take their business elsewhere and you have an obligation to provide a service at the lowest possible rates.
Maintaining the lowest possible rates requires operating your utility as efficiently as possible while protecting against losses. Losses for a utility can include theft of service or embezzlement, but most often are seen in bad debt accounts that must be written off.
Minimizing written-off accounts can be best accomplished by implementing policies and procedures that ensure:
I don’t believe enforcing fair and effective policies and procedures is at odds with being customer friendly if you have communicated these business practices to your customers. Failing to clearly inform customers of your policies and procedures is bad business and borders on deception.
Another imperative to being customer friendly is treating your customers equitably and applying policies fairly to all customers. This includes not granting special favors to influential or politically connected customers or friends and family members of utility employees.
Effectively publicize your policies and procedures
The key to informing your customers of your policies and procedures is to use all possible means to do so. This includes:
It is possible to be “customer friendly” and operate an efficient utility
What is your utility’s organizational culture? Do you treat your customers fairly and hold them all to the same standards? Do you take advantage of every means possible to communicate your policies to your customers?
If you do all the things listed above, I believe it is absolutely possible to have an organizational culture that allows you to be both customer friendly and still operate a utility that adheres to sound business practices.
How does your utility measure up?
Is your utility is operating as efficiently as possible? Are you are as customer friendly as you could be?
If the answer to either of these questions is “no” (or if you’re honestly not sure of the answer), please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or e-mailing me at email@example.com to see how I can assist you.
© 2012 Gary Sanders
You’ve probably read about social networking and may even be asking yourself “is this relevant to my utility?” I’m convinced it is and will attempt to explain why…
Two of the most popular social networks are Facebook and Twitter. You’ve probably seen businesses encourage their customers to “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. In this issue, let’s take a look at how establishing a Facebook page can help promote your utility. Once your customers “like” your page, they will see your status updates in their Facebook news feed, just like posts from any of their Facebook friends.
If your utility promotes water conservation, what better way to communicate that message than on a Facebook page? For utilities located in an area that is dealing with drought, Facebook is an excellent way to inform your customers of changes in drought restriction stages. If your utility bills for municipal services such as trash or recycling, Facebook provides a great forum to publicize changes in collection days.
Maintaining a web presence
Previously, I’ve written about why I believe maintaining a web presence is important and about some common website mistakes to avoid. If your utility doesn’t have the resources to design and host a website, a Facebook page is a great way to create an internet presence, and it’s FREE!
If you are unsure where to start in creating a Facebook page, SmallWaterSupply.org has a standing offer to build one for you. If you’re unfamiliar with SmallWaterSupply.org, they provide a variety of free resources for small water and wastewater systems. If you haven’t visited their website yet, I encourage you to do so.
How one utility uses Facebook
Lancaster County Water and Sewer District (LCWSD) in Lancaster, South Carolina maintains a Facebook page in addition to their website. David Lee, the IT Director for LCWSD, says “Facebook is an excellent way to promote the ways your utility gives back to the community by showing your involvement in local charities such as United Way and Red Cross Blood Drives. Customers can see that you are “real” people rather than just a place to pay a utility bill”.
Facebook pages allow you to post photos, “likes” for your page and a map to your office, as well as interact with your customers. David Lee states “We use Facebook to post messages of water outages, location of outages, estimated time of completion and the actual completion times. I have had several great comments on how we are one of the only utilities that does this. Even if there are no outages, we post that twice a day as well – once in the morning and again in the afternoon.”
Interact with your customers
You can post status updates, as LCWSD does, poll your customers (as I did about cut-off policies on the Utility Information Pipeline Facebook page) and allow your customers to post comments and ask questions. Of course, you can disable this feature and not allow your customers to post, but I would discourage you from doing so. After all, Facebook is called “social media” and who wants to be social with someone who won’t allow you to ask a question or voice your opinion? You can always remove offensive posts from your page, but if your customers have legitimate questions about how your utility operates, why not provide a forum for them to ask?
Finally, if you’re a Facebook user, please take a minute to “like” the Utility Information Pipeline Facebook page.
If you have questions about establishing a Facebook page for your utility, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320or e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012 Gary Sanders
The next issue will mark the completion of one full year of publishing the Utility Information Pipeline. In looking back on the past year, and realizing that the last issue for the year won’t arrive until after Christmas, I decided to send a special issue with some reflections and acknowledgements.
I want to take a moment to thank all of my readers who have taken the time to comment on my blog, send me an e-mail or give me a call about something they read in my newsletter. I am especially grateful to those subscribers who let me know that something I wrote provided them with new information or caused them to reevaluate how they are doing things. I also want to thank those readers of my newsletter who felt that the content was valuable enough to pass along to co-workers and colleagues and encourage them to subscribe as well.
I also want to thank two organizations that have publicized my blog and, in turn, given me more exposure.
The first of these is SmallWaterSupply.org. I found this site through their Twitter feed at @help4smallwater and sent an e-mail introducing myself to Steve Wilson, the director of SmallWaterSupply.org. Much to my surprise, they featured my blog in their next weekly e-mail newsletter (you can read it here). Their newsletter is filled with good information and you can read past issues and subscribe to it here. If you aren’t already a subscriber to the SmallWaterSupply.org newsletter, I recommend it – especially if yours is a small water utility.
American Water Works Association
The American Water Works Association’s Customer Service Community site went live on Monday, December 12. I’m proud to say that my blog is listed as a Customer Service Organization on their Customer Service Resources page. The Customer Service Community, along with the Conservation Community, which is another great resource, can be found by clicking on the Professional and Technical Resources tab from the AWWA.org home page.
As I mentioned above, I’m now on Twitter, where I found SmallWaterSupply.org. You can follow me on Twitter at @GaryASanders.
If you’re an avid Facebook user, I now have a Facebook page for my blog at www.facebook.com/UtilityInformationPipeline. Please feel free to check it out and “like” my blog while you’re there.
I believe that social media can be a tool for utilities to communicate with their customers. As I become more familiar and comfortable using social media myself, I suspect that I will be writing a future newsletter about how it can benefit utilities.
Thank you again for taking the time to read my newsletter and for all the support and encouragement I have received this past year.
I want to wish each of my readers a joyous holiday season and health and prosperity in the new year.
I’m always looking for ideas to write about in this newsletter, so if you have an idea or suggestion of a topic that you would like to learn more about, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at email@example.com.
© 2011 Gary Sanders