Tailboard: Effective Customer Interaction

Necessary tree trimming can be a hard sell for utility customers. Active listening and strategic communication techniques can mean the difference between a pleasant experience and losing customers’ trust for good.

 
If you’re not doing the job yourself, it’s easy to ignore the practical realities of maintaining a reliable electrical grid. Your morning coffee, your television, your computer—it’s all made functional by the wonder of modern electrical distribution. We in utility vegetation management know these things to be true. We know that vegetation management is necessary to maintain power for all customers, and important for the safety of line workers and the public.
 

But your average customer doesn’t—and that’s why they may hear a different message when they hear: “We need to prune your tree.”

This is about much more than an isolated unpleasant interaction—it’s about the reputation of your utility company. A customer will always remember the time the utility company came and “butchered” their tree, and response can come in the form of angry phone calls, threats of litigation, the telling of friends and neighbors, or a call to the local media. Repairing damage can be costly.

And that’s why arming your utility arborists with the right methods to engage customers about necessary tree work is a significantly valuable investment. It’s not only our responsibility to ensure proper vegetation management—it’s our responsibility to communicate with landowners on when, where and how this work is necessary.

Click here to download the infographic on effective customer communications.

 
 

An Uphill Battle
There are more communication mediums today than ever before. Businesses can communicate in a number of channels to customers on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, digitally with email and text updates, as well as community events. Even with all of these new platforms for communication, the most effective strategy for advancing a vegetation management program remains face-to-face discussions with your customers.

One of the best strategies a utility can use is to designate ambassadors to communicate the necessities of tree trimming and pruning in person. These ambassadors will treat your customers with respect and professionalism. One-on-one communication obviously demands more resources than any other type of communication, but the results we see are significant. Professional arborists have a common saying, “Right Tree, Right Place.” Face-to-face communication is the best way for your customers to understand the depth of this tagline. The task of delivering reliable electricity to millions of homes safely requires that less of the wrong trees are in the wrong places.

Benefits of Active Listening
For your ambassadors to perform their job well, they should be well versed in active listening techniques. The average landowner isn’t immediately familiar with “UVM” or why it’s an important component of a utility’s responsibility; the ambassador must consider this throughout the interaction.

Example:

Customer: “I don’t understand why this work is necessary. I haven’t been having any problems with my electricity.”

Utility Arborist: “I understand that this work may seem unnecessary to you. To be clear, we’re here to address trees to help make sure you and your neighbors continue to enjoy excellent service.”

This active listening approach makes it clear that you, the listener, have understood the concern being raised by paraphrasing the information back to the customer. In hearing their concerns repeated back to them, landowners can then rationalize the situation and feel that their concerns have been appreciated.

The utility arborist can also check the assumptions of the landowner by confirming information. As an example: “Let me make sure I have this correct: Your family planted this tree 40 years ago and it’s important to you.”

To complete the conversation, the active listener should be able to provide a summary of what was just discussed, with the intention of displaying empathy for the landowner with an understanding of his or her thoughts and experiences.

Be Prepared
Of course, not every interaction is going to go this way. Some customer’s frustration won’t be immediately defused by active listening, and it’s important to be just as prepared for those less-than-pleasant conversations.

The most important point to remember in these situations is the source of the customer’s anger: It’s not you, it’s the situation. Therefore, keeping a cool head is critical—arguing can only make the situation worse. Be prepared to walk away from the situation if necessary. In many cases, one conversation doesn’t resolve a complex situation.

Better Communication—All the Time
Lastly, landowners are far more likely to be receptive to a utility they trust—and that’s why continually building that trust independent of direct, one-to-one conversations can be hugely beneficial.

A good customer relationship takes continual maintenance. Some programs that utilities can consider in fostering a good relationship between itself and its customers include:

  • Helpful call centers specific to vegetation management for taking customer questions
  • Town-hall-style meetings when a major trimming project (i.e., affecting several properties) is upcoming
  • Replanting programs that empower customers to plant the right trees in the right place.

At the end of the day, effective communication is about far more than avoiding an unpleasant interaction when tree trimming needs to occur. It’s about building a positive message that connects proper tree maintenance with electric reliability and safety. Boosting the public’s knowledge about these practices with face-to-face interaction has long-term benefits that you can’t get with a mail insert.

 
Click to download the infographic with tips for effectively communicating with customers.
 

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