Building Trust in the Utility Sector

A recent study by Accenture (“The New Energy Consumer Handbook“) delivers an important message to utility industry leaders: now, more than ever, consumers need to hear from you about how you will deliver reliable, affordable electricity to power their interconnected world.

Unfortunately, most utility executives remain virtually unknown in their communities, preferring to keep their heads down and to interface with regulators and legislators, rather than customers. Similarly, electric utilities purposefully stay out of the limelight (it usually only shines on them when there is a power outage, proposed new infrastructure or a possible rate increase).

While utilities generally like anonymity – arguing that they are performing at their best when no one notices them – this approach may becoming increasingly difficult, and risky, to maintain.

As Ken Silverstein points out in his recent energybiz post, consider the alarming statistic from Accenture that fewer than 25% of utility customers have faith in their utility providers. Some of this mistrust no doubt is based on system outages; but equally plausible is the fact that most customers have absolutely no idea how electricity is generated and reaches their homes and businesses. To the industry’s credit, consumers take it for granted that when they turn on their light switch or plug in their computer, smart phone, or i-Something, the power necessary to recharge those devices will be at the correct voltage (“The correct what?”).

This isn’t to say that utility executives should give out their cell phone number as a bill insert (actually, that may be their safest bet, since very few bill inserts are even read). However, any industry where fewer than 1 in 4 customers have faith in current providers is at incredible risk – whether state-enabled monopolies exist or not. As consumers grow more reliant on web-enabled devices, their expectations of reliable electricity to power those devices will also increase.

Electric utility executives need to develop a communication plan to assure customers of present and future reliability. A failure in this area will indeed be a failure of leadership.