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Customer Experience Trumps Even the Best Technologies

May 20, 2022
Even the best product or service can quickly lose its appeal if customer experience is lacking.

T&D World’s editorial staff works hard to bring you the latest on technologies that can improve system operations and maintenance, reliability, resiliency, outage restoration, and much more. Basically, the the type of information that will help ensure utilities can provide safe, reliable, affordable power to customers 24/7, 365 days a year. Many assume that if this goal is met, customers will be happy. I was recently reminded, however, this isn’t always the case. Even the best product or service can quickly lose its appeal if customer experience is lacking.

I’ve seen numerous television and newspaper stories in the last year or two highlighting companies’ failures to provide adequate customer service, often due to their inability to find and retain qualified workers. While waiting in line at the grocery store in one of only two open check-out lanes, or at a self-checkout line that is 20 people deep is annoying, the experience can be navigated successfully with a little patience.

In other situations, lack of customer services can create experiences that require more than a little patience to resolve. In a window of about two weeks, I experienced firsthand how poor customer service at airlines, internet service providers and, yes, an electric utility, made me want to look for alternative providers. I don’t want to turn this column into a rant, but I think it’s important for us to remember that all the amazing engineering and technological feats that businesses are deploying behind the scenes to improve efficiency, save money and even add customer perks mean little to the customer who is unable to set up new services, change an autopay account, or arrive at his or her desired destination.  

I was excited to be traveling to the IEEE PES T&D Conference in New Orleans a few weeks ago, but never made it. My connecting flight from Houston to New Orleans was canceled after I’d already boarded the first leg of my trip. I was told by the airline representative at the counter in the Houston airport that the fastest way to resolve my problem was to use the app, visit the website or call an 800 number and speak to a representative. I followed her instructions and spent more than an hour waiting in the queue to speak to a live person. That person told me my best option was to take flight to New Orleans leaving the next evening, which was 30 hours later. My experience with the app and website was no less frustrating. I was able to “chat” with a computer before being told to call the same 800 number that rendered no help. I didn’t make it to New Orleans the next day either and ended up returning home (on a different airline).

You might think this story has no relevance to electric utilities, but I discovered just a few days later that utilities use similar “do it yourself” customer service programs. My husband and I are moving and needed to set up utilities and internet service to our new house. I called the electricity provider and was thrilled to reach a live person, but it didn’t take long to discover that her function was like that of the airline representative in the airport, which was to direct me to a “do it yourself” website. She told me all services, billing and communications are handled via the company website. While the process wasn’t difficult, it shifted all the work to me and, given my recent experience with the airline, caused some of that frustration to resurface. A few days later, I received an email welcoming me as a customer and requesting my deposit and other payments. That’s the last I heard from the utility. To find out if my service request was approved and when my electricity would be connected, I had to contact the utility again. The process got the job done, but the customer experience was lacking.

I’ll spare you the details of my encounter with the internet service provider, but will say that after hours of waiting in queues and trying to transfer my service and set up autopay myself, I ended up visiting two different company retail locations. I learned that the representatives, who were nice and tried to be helpful, had to dial in and wait in the same customer service queues. They didn’t have much more luck than I did at switching my current service to the new location or setting up autopay. It was frustrating and time consuming for them and me. How can this be considered good customer service?

I don’t believe difficulty in finding and retaining employees as the pandemic wanes and society tries to return to normal is the cause of my poor customer experiences. Many companies, and most utilities, have adopted self-service customer solutions. These systems streamline processes in house, allow companies to reduce employee numbers and, in theory, are meant to improve customer service. When the required tasks are straight forward, the process typically works correctly and most people, including me, are fine with it. I can’t imagine, however, that anyone is OK with spending hours on the phone waiting to talk to a live person to get a problem resolved, or spending hours in a retail store sitting with a customer service representative who must call in and wait in the same queue.

You and I are aware of the amazing technologies and solutions utilities have implemented to improve efficiency, reliability, resiliency, sustainability, and yes, customer service. It’s important to make sure poor customer experience doesn’t overshadow and negate it.   

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