I spoke yesterday at a regional conference of electric cooperative marketing and customer service folks. One of the key points I make in talks in the utility industry is about managing customer expectations. When a utility customer hears “save money,” our Energy Pulse study shows that what they actually hear is “cut my bill in half.” That’s why it’s imperative that money saving messages be accompanied by actual, reasonable, expected savings amounts. Not shockingly, a third of the people who say they’ve made energy efficient home improvements haven’t seen the savings they expected, and who do you suppose they blame? Yep — the utility company.
After my talk a fellow came up and shared the following story that offers a case-study example of what happens when you don’t manage customer expectations. I thought it was worth repeating as a cautionary tale for anyone in marketing and customer service — particularly those folks who have to deal with the media on camera.
The gist of the story is this: a Marine deployed in Iraq has his home in Florida ransacked and burglarized. Volunteers come together to repair the home and install a security system, which necessitates turning on the electricity. The Marine’s Mom goes to have the electricity turned on, and is told by the electric co-op that her son owes $36 that he failed to pay before he was deployed. So the electricity can only be turned back on if the $36 — plus a new $200 deposit — is paid. The story is featured on the local Fox News affiliate and spun as if the marine and his Mom are being punished — that the new $200 deposit is a result of the $36 outstanding balance.
The reporter makes this issue her mission in life (and, seemingly, so does the entire Fox news staff). She marches to the utility’s headquarters and presses the spokesperson on camera for her take on how the utility could possibly be living up to words on the utility’s website: “”The founding visionaries who built LCEC from the ground up were determined to grow an organization with a heart and a conscience.” At the end of the story she looks into the camera and asks vieweres to email or call her if they’ve also had trouble with the utility charging “unreasonable deposits.” Not surprisingly, she gets hundreds of emails…which result in, no kidding, over 15 more news stories over the following weeks — none of which is positive for the utility. In one story, the Fox reporter literally says, “LCEC’s public relations person tells us she won’t talk to Fox4 viewers on camera anymore. Even though as co-op members, you pay her to do just that.”
Wow. All this over a $36 outstanding bill. The moral of the story is if you claim to be “customer focused,” “community minded,” or “an organization with a heart and conscience” or any of the popular things companies love to claim as a way of communicating they care and, therefore, consumers should like them and buy from them, you’d better be ready to deliver on it. In the competitive, 24-hour news cycle in which we live a hungry reporter can latch onto something contradictory and not let go — dragging your brand and reputation into the mud.