Tracie Boutte, Vice President of Customer Experience Strategy at Entergy, discusses the challenges utilities face in meeting customers’ increasingly high expectations and how smart grid technology can help companies improve customer satisfaction.
Lauren Everhart: What has changed over the past few years in the utility space to push some companies to focus more heavily on customer relationships?
Tracie Boutte: The ability to have instant information at your fingertips, or through smart handheld devices, has greatly impacted the way in which customers want to transact business with their service providers. All service providers are challenged to continually meet and exceed their customers’ expectations, and we were no different. This new customer ability for instant information has raised the bar on all service providers to give customers what they want, when and how they want it. Our customers have expectations, that because more information is available, we will use it in the most positive way to influence their experiences of us.
Reviewing historical trends on customer perception indicated that customers are fairly consistent in what they desire from us. However, there are tremendous dynamics in today’s environment that are influencing customer expectations of their service providers. One of the challenges that our utility industry faces is more competition. But it isn’t what you would intuitively believe – that there is another electric provider in our geographic area. We’re the only electric provider in many of our areas. Instead, the competition that we’re facing is other service providers in the market that are offering complementary products and services, such as a cable company or a small business that offers personalization, convenience, and customer focus. Our customers are comparing our service to what other service providers, not just utility providers, can offer them.
In view of the future challenges of more competition, we have to consider several things. What sources of power in the future will serve our customers? What is our role in that scenario and how will our business-operating model will be impacted? We know that we will continue to face pressure to keep costs competitive, reduce operating costs and streamline everything to provide the most competitive costs and services for our customers. While at the same time, we are being challenged with increasing customer expectations and potentially operating under a new business model for sustainability.
The move toward the smart grid must include a whole new relationship with the customer. It is critical for today’s utility companies to provide information and put more decision-making ability and control in the hands of the customer. How has this trend in changing the customer experience affected the strategy that you’ve been asked to develop?
We have done extensive customer research that goes well beyond perception data to fully understand the emotions that customers feel as they do business with us. As we listened to customers describe their interactions with us, many times they say that they feel like they have no control over their situations.
One of the big advantages of smart grid technologies for our customers is that smart grid can provide that sense of control our customers seek. It will also benefit us because we’re able to provide our customers with more control, which increases customer satisfaction. One of the top issues that we heard customers say is that by the time they get their bill 30 days after the usage has occurred, and it’s higher than they expected, they have little control over changing their behavior to impact their usage. What customers would like is the ability to know their usage/dollars as the month progresses. Customers want to set parameters and be able to say, ‘I’d like to spend no more than $200 this month on electricity.’ If on day 10 of their 30-day cycle they’re already at $100, they want to be notified so that they have an opportunity to change their behavior to meet their budgetary goals.
What else are you doing to better understand your customers’ desires?
We have extensively tapped into the ‘voice of our customer’ research to analyze their perceptions of us. Every three days, we survey customers about their experience with us within the last 36 to 48 hours. From that research, we have been able to identify customer profiles. If I had to describe it in a broad perspective, it’s really about personalization. It’s no longer about one-size-fits-all in terms of traditionally providing one service that is relevant to everyone. Today, it’s about going deeper and understanding, from the customer perspective, what is the right service for them? What’s the right delivery channel? What is relevant to them as individuals? We’ve done extensive research to better understand these customer desires.
Secondly, we’ve really focused on developing a collaborative design process with our customers. Besides obtaining deep ‘voice of the customer’ research, we’re looked qualitatively at what our customers are currently experiencing. When we started our strategy design process, we included the customer. We developed new customer concepts, but we took the approach of letting the voice of the customer and their expectations and needs drive our strategy. Our customers were involved throughout the process, from research through conceptual design and then, of course, customer testing and launch. When we launched our customer satisfaction program, we put in a number of measures and monitors to ensure that we are continuing to meet the changing needs and expectations of our customers.
"We know that we will continue to face pressure to keep costs competitive, reduce operating costs and streamline everything to provide the most competitive costs and services for our customers. While at the same time, we are being challenged with increasing customer expectations and potentially operating under a new business model for sustainability."
Did the customer research change your strategy approach?
Two main themes came out in terms of changing how we do business. One was a foundational message in terms of keeping the customer better informed. We now have a work stream called ‘Keep Me Informed’ and we’ve developed products and services that are coordinated with that work stream. The second work stream and related products and services, called ‘Save Me Money,’ helps the customer save money.
An example of a ‘Keep Me Informed’ product is proactive outage communications. Prior to our efforts, we listened to customers talk about their outage experiences. We heard them say they felt like they did not have any control over their outage situation because they lacked the ability to plan their lives. They felt that we did not understand what they were going through and that, unfortunately, they believed that because we didn’t provide them with information, we didn’t care. We took those emotions around control and feeling cared for and turned them into a product to proactively communicate with all customers during all outages. Prior to this, we had an outage communications program, but it was an opt-in program in which very few customers participated. We said, ‘Listen, we’ve heard you. We know that if we provide this service, it will help turn the negative emotions we heard into positive ones.’ That’s how we will get step changes in customer satisfaction.
This level of customer involvement in our service design has already paid off in step changes in customer satisfaction and recognition among our peers as leading the industry in proactive outage communications.
What other changes do you expect to see in the industry?
This is a continuous journey. There needs to be a tight integration between the voice of the customer, the customer’s needs and the business’ needs. The business must be agile enough and have the operational discipline to see the dynamics of the environment and be able to change accordingly. Utilities have relied on the processes that have always served them well. We will be challenged to think differently about our customers, and hence, our business. I am excited about what the future holds in delivering service to our customers. It’s all about providing the right product, to the right customer, at the right time, in the right place.
Tracie Boutte, Vice President of Customer Experience Strategy for Entergy Services, Inc., targets improvements that enhance services for Entergy’s 2.3 million utility customers throughout a four-state service territory. Recent achievements under her leadership include:
- Developing the Entergy customer experience strategy using a “voice of the customer” collaborative approach.
- Building a 40+ cross-functional employee volunteer organization to discover, develop and deliver a positive and profitable customer experience.
- Engaging top leadership as sponsors and champions to cascade the customer experience strategy to all leaders within the organization.
- Creating Employee Engagement strategies for some 4600 employees to deliver positive customer experiences.
- Documenting positive business results (ROI) from employee experiments and demonstration project improvements prior to system-wide implementation.
- All 5 Entergy operating companies occupying the top 5 places in the 2013 JDPA national rankings on Proactive Outage Communications.
- Entergy’s Proactive Outage Communications Program received the 2013 silver award for Best Practices by Chartwell, a utility industry organization.
- Entergy’s Mobile Outage Reporting recognized as a Best Practice by ESource, a utility industry association
Boutte with a career spanning over 27 years, has held key positions including Vice President of Regulatory and Governmental Affairs for Entergy New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina , Vice President of Gas Distribution Business for Entergy New Orleans and Entergy Gulf States, and Vice President of Strategic Market Planning for Entergy’s Retail Organization.
Throughout her professional career, Boutte has been recognized with numerous honors and prioritizes ways to give back to the community. Currently she serves as President, Sisters of the Holy Family Development Board, Canal Street Development Board of Directors (Vice President), Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Past President) as well as several other organizations.
Boutte is a native of New Orleans and holds a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Orleans, and a MBA from Tulane University.