Powerful Trends: Public Power Utilities Meet the Reliability, Cost, And Service Needs Of Demanding Customers
By offering great rates, reliable service, energy-efficiency measures, and attentive service, public power companies are creating a win-win situation for their customers as well as the communities they serve.
Steve Stackhouse-Kaelble (Q1 / Winter 2013)
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The customer-service angle is another area where public power utilities are trying to set themselves apart. It actually comes rather naturally, as they can legitimately argue that customers really are king — because they’re not-for-profit, owned directly or indirectly by the communities they serve, and don’t have shareholders to please — just their customers.
In fact, large industrial customers expect and receive a lot of attention. “We have key account reps who are assigned to our larger customers,” Christianson explains. The economic development operation at OPPD tries to attract businesses, help them in their site search, and find them the location assistance they need. Once they’re on their way, “we turn them over to a key account executive who is responsible for getting the service in. And then if they have a problem, they have a single point of contact available 24/7. That really helps in our customer service,” and helps the utility earn awards.
OPPD is not alone when it comes to award-winning service. Salt River Project has been a J.D. Power winner, too. In the rating company’s 2012 “Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study,” Salt River Project’s overall customer-satisfaction index was 741 of a possible 1,000, according to Grant. And it was highest in the nation in five of the six customer-satisfaction factors: power quality and reliability, billing and payment, corporate citizenship, price, and customer service.
The key account manager concept is important at Salt River Project, too, Grant says. “When a prospect walks in the door and wants to engage SRP, once they start to nail down their parameters, we start to transition to the key account manager process.”
Borries Reed points out that responsive service also stems from the fact that the control is totally local, the management is local, and the employees are local. “Public power employees are your neighbors, people who are in the community,” she says. “They’re invested in making sure your company is doing well.”
Price Is Right
Then there’s the matter of energy rates. Without a profit to make, public power utilities can price their product based more closely on the cost. Also, any extra revenues can be pumped right back into improving service and technology. “Because we’re a not-for-profit utility, whatever we’re able to generate in margins, we are able to reinvest in the system and create jobs,” Cannon says.
“Cost-based electric rates generate revenues that are used strictly to keep rates low, while allowing for investments in necessary maintenance, construction, and upgrades to power plants, substations, and transmission lines,” Nelson explains. Grant adds, “We’re not profit maximizers, we’re cost minimizers.”
Nelson says there are a lot of things public power utilities can do to build advantages into the rate structure. For example, major users such as data centers can plug into NPPD’s economic development rate for large customers. “This incentive allows for a discounted retail electrical rate for up to five years if the site achieves certain consumption, load factor, and certification requirements.”
Additionally, because of the direct or close ties to local government, the economic development departments of public power utilities tend to be especially connected with others involved in local development. NPPD, for example, has aided in the site searches of numerous companies, according to Nelsen. “Services range from supplying requested information to guiding firms through the entire site-selection process. This can include gathering community proposals, identifying informational and financial resources, or facilitating final negotiations at the local level,” he says.
In many cases, public power utilities are also tied in directly with other utility services — municipalities that own their own electric systems also are often the local providers of water, natural gas, sewer, and sometimes even phone and data communications services. “We’re able to help [customers] with a lot of other things,” Cannon says of Greenville Utilities, provider of not only electricity but also natural gas, water, and wastewater treatment. “We’re a one-stop shop for all of their utilities; we can help with the permitting process, zoning issues, and other issues that they come across.”