I can’t think of a specific incident that would account for it. It’s happened over time, by stealth. It was once held that opinions are like noses: Everyone has one. If yours was not a professional opinion, you kept it to yourself. But in today’s environment there are lots of opinions from outside utilities on the need for transmission or generation, and the advocates make sure they’re heard and expect consideration.

Sometimes I wonder why utilities bother to do any planning. Identify a need for more generation; plan to fuel it with coal to minimize the cost to be borne by the customer and have it vetoed by the governor of the state. Identify a need for transmission, and the first battle is convincing the regulators of the need. And that’s only the beginning of the campaign as you will be engaged for years in a fracas over siting. Determine you need a rate increase to replace aging assets, only to have the regulator shave 70% off the increase and then suffer a public flogging when a windstorm results in a multi-day outage for hundreds of thousands of customers.

There is, however, an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with customers, which cannot help but lead to a more open, sympathetic hearing that is being missed by utilities. And it involves a group, which in utility experience is more frequently a source of public friction and complaints. It’s the VM group.

When you think about it, who has more contact with customers than the VM group? The only group that comes to mind is the billing department. Do you see potential for improving customer perception of the company through the bill?

A recent article by Anne Beard provides the best management practices and a comprehensive overview of the methods used by utilities to notify customers of impending VM work or to obtain their consent to the work. While the article points out that the utility VM department’s customer-interface system has a major impact on customer complaints and customer satisfaction, the article does not advocate for a particular approach, as I am about to do.

The approach I advocate is one of face-to-face customer contact. Having been involved with such a system as a forester for TransAlta’s Distribution Line Clearance program, there are a number of deductions and lasting impressions I have to share. First, I need to state that I was initially opposed to face-to-face customer contact for signed consents prior to initiating VM work on the basis of cost. This argument was proven wrong when we found that because people love their trees, considerable time was required to educate the customer on what we wanted to do and why. However, the result was that the customers allowed us to remove 75% of the trees we touched. This represented an enormous reduction in the number of trees requiring ongoing and repetitive pruning.

Equally surprising was when we measured customer satisfaction with the VM program, we received very high ratings averaging 96% and subsequently 98% satisfied or better, well in excess of typical company ratings.

Over 10 years ago I heard Dave Johnson of Portland General Electric report on its customer contact study examining customer satisfaction with VM work. He reported, of customers receiving crew contact (a face-to-face contact prior to the work), 75% indicated being "more than satisfied" vs. 33% for the customer group not contacted directly in advance. Further, all the customers contacted prior to work indicated performance met or exceeded expectations while 67% of the customers without crew contact felt performance was below expectations.

Here’s what I draw from these experiences:

  • Face to face encounters provide an opportunity to educate the customer on utility issues.
  • Involving customers in decisions increases their satisfaction.
  • Involving customers in decision making results in a far higher rate of cooperation.
  • Face to face encounters provide an opportunity to generate and agree on shared expectations.

The last point is crucial. It is relatively easy to meet an expectation you have defined for the customer. The corollary is, it is next to impossible to meet or satisfy undefined expectations.

In Measuring Levels of Customer Satisfaction, Thiessen states “customers with unresolved complaints spread both their complaints and their attitude to others, deteriorating other customers' attitudes toward TransAlta.” While positive impressions of your company do not circulate as far and fast, they do provide a ground resistant to the establishment of negative seeds. A public that trusts you in one area, especially a contentious one like VM, is more likely to hear and be receptive to your explanations of needs or events.

Do you recall Tom Peters saying that, while it may seem unfair, residual coffee stains on the airplane tray table may make us suspicious of the company’s maintenance practices? I’d suggest there is also an opposite, a halo effect. If your company has proven itself proficient and trustworthy in one technical or complex field, there is a positive expectation that you will prove equally competent in other technical aspects of your business. If you wish to tap the “halo effect” as an antidote to the “me” centric world, your VM work provides a good place to start.