Natural Gas Provider Gets Go-Ahead From State, Targets California Businesses

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Natural gas provider UtiliCorp United, Kansas City, MO, now has an easier time calling retail businesses to inform them that choosing Energy One as their gas supplier can save them money.

California this year approved the simpler voice verification process in place of the time-consuming signed confirmation letter it previously required of business owners before they were able to switch gas suppliers. Prospects now just stay on the line while phone reps transfer them to a live operator or a voice message system that prompts confirmation.

But in view of the complicated nature of an industry measured in therms, where price depends on weather conditions and politics, Utilicorp is finding that it takes more to reach business owners than an easier switch process: phone reps must excel as sellers and educators.

Although UtiliCorp has used teleservices for four years with various vendors to reach consumers in the regions previously covered by the Southern California Gas Company and Pacific Gas and Electric, only after inking a deal with InBusiness Teleservices, is the company seeing positive results. Key to the increase in sales are the highly-trained reps working for IBT who are well-versed in the utility industry and up-to-date on daily market changes.

"We need sophisticated reps," said Neill Osgood, director of telemarketing, UtiliCorp. The centers with hundreds of barely-trained reps might work well with telecommunication companies that sell costs per minute to consumers, but it doesn't work when selling gas over the telephone, he said.

"Reps need to understand commodity gas pricing," Osgood said.

Currently eight reps work full-time on the UtiliCorp account for IBT, which employs a total of 45 reps knowledgeable in the natural gas and electricity industry.

Training on the energy industry includes an intensive two-week course as well as daily and weekly ongoing sessions covering current events, said Barbara Roberts, president of IBT.

Calls will vary according to the business contact being called, Roberts said. The scripted sales process serves only as a guideline: Actual conversations are different depending upon knowledge of the prospect.

"The number one goal during each call is to educate the business owner about deregulation," said Osgood. "Second, we show the benefits and savings of choosing our brand, Energy One; third, we close the sale.

"We focus on results and establishing a relationship with each prospect, not just the number of calls," Roberts said. Calls generally last 6-10 minutes, but can last as long as 20 minutes. Reps on average will make more than 200 calls a day. The company would not release the conversion rate, only saying that it is "substantial."

"By knowing what we are talking about, [the product, market and needs of consumers] we are building trust in UtiliCorp Energy Solutions," Roberts said.

UtiliCorp, one of the top five energy providers in country, with $8.5 billion in sales, has marketed natural gas to industrial and wholesale customers in nearly all of the contiguous 48 states, as well as part of Canada and Mexico.

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