Educating Business Customers In a Changing Electricity Industry

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As an industry begins to face competition for the first time, communications become an essential means of reassurance for customers.


The electric utility industry is undergoing a marketplace metamorphosis. Information gleaned from this industry can be a resource for identifying approaches to educating customers about a changing environment.


Restructuring of the electric utility industry is taking place across the country. In Illinois, the initial restructuring phase started in October 1999 when the market opened up to all large business customers as well as one-third of small to medium-sized businesses. By the end of 2000, every business customer in Illinois will be able to choose an electricity supplier. All residential customers will receive the same opportunity in May 2002.


To help prepare its business customers for the coming change, ComEd began talking to customers as early as 1997. As we talked to customers, our mission became clear: We needed to help them understand the restructured marketplace.


We knew business customers would have many questions about buying electricity after the restructuring. In the past, customers purchased electricity supply (generation) and delivery services (transmission and distribution) from the same company. Restructuring allows customers to choose which company will provide their electricity supply. ComEd still provides delivery services.


We felt it was important to help business customers understand the impact of restructuring. Research helped us identify the most relevant issues facing business customers in the changing marketplace, including:


o How will reliability be impacted?


o How do I compare the costs of different providers/suppliers?


o How do I change suppliers?


o How can I protect my business from slamming and fraudulent behavior?


We found that customers expected ComEd, as the incumbent electric utility, to share information on other topics. This is important because it meant that as long as our message was relevant, someone was out there waiting to listen. Our dialogue would follow a well-planned, four-point outline: set the stage for upcoming changes, build confidence, focus on the needs of different targets and reassure customers who switch.


Business customers were hearing about restructuring, but not all understood how it would impact their business. This confusion was driven by experience with other changing industries, such as telecommunications and natural gas. This led us to the most important first step of our process: customer insight. Before we could speak the language of our customers, we had to understand their world.


One of the tools we used to understand the customer mind-set was Jacobs & Clevenger's Customer Lifecycle Management process, a communications planning system that identifies key customer insights and then applies that information to building an integrated communications plan.


We were certain of one thing: ComEd, as the distribution company, needs to communicate with customers, regardless of which company provides the supply.


Business customers will still need to talk with ComEd about many things: outage reporting; restoration; delivery service charges; meter services; readings; and moves, adds or changes to electric service.


We had to keep the lines of communication open. The more we talked from the customer's point of view, the better we could communicate with business leaders. We had to create opportunities to talk with customers one-on-one.


Initiate: Set the stage. The first step had to create awareness. In order to demonstrate ComEd's support of competition in the marketplace, we outlined the framework of the new legislation. This kept customers informed regarding how changes in the marketplace would impact them and helped customers take advantage of the opportunities the changes provided. To achieve this, we relinquished our natural-born desires to sell to our customers.


Several creative approaches were tested; a straightforward communications approach resonated best with business customers. First on the drawing board was a White Paper Restructuring Report, which provided unbiased, factual information in customer terms. Energy managers expressed a need to share this report with other company managers. So we chose an 8 1/2-inch-by-11-inch messaging format that made it easy for managers to copy and distribute.


Research also revealed that word choice in our copy would be a critical factor. To positively impact customer perceptions, we implemented extensive messaging research to help us fine-tune copy and ensure that our message was clearly understood.


Build confidence. Reassuring customers in a time of change is critical. We developed a series of communications that provided information on system reliability enhancements and resources available to customers in the face of change. Customer-friendly communications were designed to reassure customers that they would continue to receive reliable delivery service regardless of the company supplying their electricity.


Focus: Provide forums for larger business customers. Give larger, more savvy business customers an opportunity to talk face to face with ComEd. For example, we established the Money & Power conference series - a kind of open forum to exchange ideas and opinions. We created an opportunity to offer very business-specific answers for any customer concern.


We recognized that our efforts would be less effective if larger businesses were not treated differently. Customers appreciated the opportunity to talk directly with ComEd leadership about the newly competitive marketplace.


Reiterate: Reassure customers. Customers who switched to ComEd delivery services received a welcome kit. This mailing reminded customers of the many resources available from ComEd, outlined changes in billing and reassured customers that they could continue to rely on ComEd. This was integrated with a series of educational print ads. We knew any and all previous promises up to this point would be meaningless unless we continued to seize opportunities to talk with our customers.


Our goal was to create awareness and educate customers in order to demonstrate ComEd's support of a competitive marketplace. The program exceeded all expectations.


L.J. Hughes is director of business marketing at ComEd, Chicago.


Sheera Eby is vice president, group account director at Jacobs & Clevenger, Chicago, an integrated marketing communications agency.
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