Digital communication raises both opportunities and challenges for energy companies in the way that they engage with business energy customers.
On the one hand, digital channels, such as email, web chat, and social media, open new lines of communication between utilities and their business customers.
On the other hand, how does the energy company know the best communication channel or combination of channels to use for each individual business customer?
US technology company FirstFuel Software supplies a business customer engagement platform to energy providers in North America and Europe and has experience of advising on multi-channel engagement.
Domenic Armano, Vice President, Customer Success, told Engerati that FirstFuel helps its utility customers to first understand the different communication points they can use, from digital channels to personal one-to-one interactions or even direct mail communication.
Armano cites an example of a utility having a business energy customer that is going to receive a higher than average bill one month.
“That is a potential issue for you as a utility provider. You need to plan how you’re going to react to that and what tools you are going to use to manage that disappointment.”
By using a customer engagement platform, explains Armano, utilities can help put the bill in context, potentially identifying whether a change in weather resulted in greater energy consumption.
“Next, you need to be prepared to explain the bill and the reasons it was high with the customer, no matter what channel they use to contact you,” Armano says.
Examples of a multi-channel response to that scenario include first ensuring that if the business customer calls in, the customer service representative answering the call has the right information to explain the higher usage.
This information also needs to be available directly to the customer through an online portal, enabling on-demand access and enabling the customer to self-serve.
FirstFuel’s platform also enables proactive alerts so an energy supplier can inform the customer that he/she has been using more energy than normal due to a greater use of their heating system.
And the best way to regularly communicate with customers? Armano suggests that if you have an email address, that is usually the best way to reach busy business customers. And if a commercial customer opts in for SMS, then all the better.
Multi-channel engagement - tracking behaviour
James Miller is Principal for Customer Strategy and Analytics at UK consultancy Delta Energy & Environment.
Miller, who has a background in retail customer engagement and notes the retail sector is “highly advanced in terms of communicating with consumers across multiple channels”, advises that data insights can help to profile customers and customise communications accordingly.
While pointing out that energy companies need to achieve consistent messaging across all touchpoints - whether social media, direct mail, or over the phone - he says that when thinking about the business energy customer, actually understanding who they are is, in many ways, more important than in consumer-focused marketing.
Miller says: “How do they transact with you? What are the things they're doing which make them different to other businesses?
“Fundamentally, the ways business customers are interacting with your services and products today offer some of the greatest clues on how you can best optimise your communications with them going forward.
“There is a lot you can do with basic transactional insights to help develop more effective engagement.”
Energy company website metrics
Another way that a utility can learn about how business customers behave is by analysing customers’ use of the utility’s website.
Armano recommends that energy companies track return rates, the time spent on the site, as well as the journey through the site to see how business customers are interacting with the content.
“We want to know how engaged they are with particular content. We also track click-through and open rates and then how many customers are completing their site profile, which is adding additional layers of information.”
FirstFuel offers a white-label business customer engagement portal that utilities can add to their websites.
Armano reports that energy providers offering the online energy tools are seeing web activity grow twofold.
He says: “Customers really find the information useful and we know that because we track how long they're spending on the site, which is around five minutes.
“And once we get them on the site, they're coming back 50% of the time.”
However, monitoring website metrics alone won’t help you succeed in engaging business energy customers, Armano cautions.
“An energy company needs to understand from the outset not just what metrics they're going to gather but also how they’re going to use that data to improve your business. That's where the real value lies.”
Energy customer engagement - data management
On the subject of data, a multi-channel engagement approach for business energy customers relies on having clean and consistent information about each end user.
Miller from Delta-ee says: “The first thing is to get the data right as it’s often highly distributed. The principle that retailers follow is to create a single customer view by bringing all the data into one place.”
Energy companies then populate this single data entity with data from all touch points they have with the customer. “That's the only way to develop a 360-degree view,” says Miller.
Armano comments on the trend in the US for utilities to standardise data into ‘data lakes’. “They're bringing all of their systems’ data into one common store that is like the repository.”
Miller notes however that data is flowing into these vast data lakes from an ever-growing number of connected devices and companies may only be extracting limited value from it.
He says: "The more devices come online and the more things connect, this is all going to have to come in one place.
“There is a big play here for data platforms to bring information together in a way that a company can make sense of and use to be proactive and predictive with business energy customers.”