Customers' satisfaction is now gaining vital importance at power distribution companies (DISCOMs) around the globe. Electricity customers of yesterday are much engaged, empowered, and informed today.
They know how and where to voice their grievance to draw immediate attention of their service providers. They are actively participating in voicing their opinion on social networks and other forums.
Electricity customers are also getting a choice of selecting their supplier now. On top of that, they have an additional option of investing in their own power-generating equipment. PwC's power & utilities roundtable discussion paper says that we are now seeing a new generation of 'prosumers' – customers who are both consumers and producers.
The everyday threat of losing customers is therefore driving DISCOMs towards satisfying their customers and meeting their expectations to as much extent as possible. Apart from availability of electricity supply on 24/7 basis, electricity customers now expect ease in getting new electricity connection, advice on most suitable category of supply, timely meter reading, billing, and handling of grievance.
They also expect their power companies to educate them on regular basis on different schemes and initiatives of government for customers' benefit.
Bill LeBlanc in his article Do Customers Understand Their Power Bill? Do They Care? What Utilities Need to Know has highlighted that there's a clear knowledge gap and an opportunity for utilities to educate customers on how they're charged for energy and what their bill is telling them.
He has voiced that utilities will need to discover many more ways to engage their customers, as there is a long road ahead in transitioning rates from the old world to the new world.
To provide customers with great satisfaction, DISCOMs now need to give quality attention to offering excellent services that attract customers and clear up all customers' complaints.
A report titled Greater expectations: Keeping pace with customer service demands in Asia Pacific from the Economist Intelligence Unit says that there is room for customer service to become a key source of competitive advantage in Asia. Companies in Asia are currently not putting enough emphasis on customer service.
Reforms introduced lately in many developing countries have resulted in a greater empowerment of customers. Consequently, customers' satisfaction has now gained vital importance at DISCOMs.
Prior to reforms, the customers' satisfaction was of course important at erstwhile electricity boards and departments but the customers hardly had any choice of their electricity supplier.
However in the ongoing deregulated environment, customers can not only choose their electricity supplier but also invest in their own power-generating equipment to bypass the grid in whole or part. It will inevitably be more pronounced in the future, when distributed generation options will be more widespread and affordable.
The threat of losing customers to competitors and potential bypass of the conventional electric distribution system by customers through distributed generation is driving DISCOMs towards ensuring higher customer satisfaction.
Losing customers has a large impact on unit rates. Attracting and retaining customers to keep electricity prices affordable is therefore more important now for the DISCOMs than ever.
In an article by the editors of Electric Light & Power/ POWERGRID International, it is mentioned that a majority of utilities recognise that customers want more in terms of clear, two-way communication on outages, rate increases, and billing issues, however about 9 percent of utilities have a complete, integrated view of each customer in order to analyse the information and deliver on those expectations.
A study on customers' expectations
To find out what electricity customers of today expect, a study was undertaken to know the perception and expectation of different categories of electricity customers of four power distribution companies operating in two states of India with a total customer-base of above 10 million.
Questionnaire responses of 500 customers of different categories were collected on a 5-point Likert scale. The questionnaire contained 30 items on services in several technical and commercial areas.
Validity of questionnaire was established using data reduction technique. The questionnaire was also tested for convergent and discriminant validity. Variables under investigations were reduced to categorised factors.
The results of the study were amazing. Data analysis of responses indicated that customers' expectations from DISCOMs have considerably increased in the post-reform era. Today's customers not only expect quality electricity supply but also expect DISCOMs to educate them on energy efficiency, energy savings, usage of energy-efficient appliances, and safe usage of electricity.
They additionally anticipate their DISCOMs to educate them on different schemes and initiatives of government announced time to time for their benefit.
As seen in the graphs, regression analysis of categorised factors also endorsed that educating customers outweigh technical services, commercial services, managerial skills, and approach.
These results of the study send an alarming note to DISCOMs' management and policymakers to review their plans in the ongoing scenario, keeping in mind to meet their customers' expectations.
Fred Ellermeier and Kevin Cornish in their article Customer Education Is Key To Successful Smart Utility Initiatives have also underlined that utilities can reinforce their bond with customers by educating them about how the changes can save money and potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions through smarter consumption.
DISCOMs, especially in the countries where reforms have been lately introduced, therefore need to stress on managing effective and efficient operations today, which would in-turn impact on their customers' satisfaction on the day after.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Asian Power. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Suresh is associated with the electric utility sector for the past 28 years. He has a degree in electrical engineering and MBA and holds Professional Engineer status in Canada and Chartered Engineer in UK. Dr Tyagi is presently designated as Assistant Professor (Selection Grade) in the Department of Human Resources & Organizational Behavior of the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies.