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All-Points Bulletin: Toxic Terminology on the Loose at Utilities

By Justin Rickard - Research Manager

Sergeant Rickard, here. I’m the E Source Utility Customer Experience Cop (or ESUCEC for short). Self‑designated, of course. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s not a paid position with health benes and 10 weeks paid vacation. It’s a hard job, you know? But I digress. As the ESUCEC, I’d like to bring up something with you today that is of the utmost importance to the longevity of the utility industry. There are a couple of terms that, despite their absolutely antiquated nature, continue to percolate in the energy industry culture. These almost-cruel terms are often used when referring to the folks who pay their hard-earned monies to utilities. I shudder (insert Edgar Allen Poe shudder) to even think about typing them here. These terms are “ratepayers” and “meters.” Oh, the horror!

Calling people ratepayers or meters further reinforces the fact that people served by regulated utilities don’t have a choice when it comes to their energy needs. When customers don’t have a choice about using a product or service, they can become easily dissatisfied. For utilities, dissatisfied customers become expensive to serve because unhappy customers contact the utility more often and on the most expensive contact channel—speaking to a live agent in the contact center. For this reason alone, it makes good business sense to weed those terms out of your utility lexicon and start referring to them as customers.

To avoid singling out utilities, I’ve even heard these terms spoken in the hallowed halls of E Source. It was a dark day when an E Sourcer referred to a utility customer as a ratepayer. I’ll never forget it, because it was that day I was self-appointed to patrol this prehistoric way of thinking. By the power vested in me as supreme ESUCEC overlord, I hereby proclaim that referring to utility customers as ratepayers or meters is now a criminal offense punishable by … punishable by … hmmm. I’ll think of something. Maybe free electricity and gas for life? Until then, my utility friends, I’ll just issue a warning for any infractions. But from now on, let’s keep it real, remembering that we need to earn our customers’ respect, business, trust, and loyalty.



I agree! I'll throw in a similar example from outside the utility industry... My husband teaches math at a community college, in part for a program called Gateway to College that gives high school students ages 16-21 a second chance to get their high school degree in an alternative setting. He stresses the importance of calling them "students" and not "kids" and treating them with the same level of respect you would issue any adult peer. My husband does so and for these (among other) reasons he in turn gets treated with respect, is trusted by his students, his students are generally well-behaved, and he has their loyalty, which translates to return business (i.e., they try to keep him as their teacher and his class is now hard to get in to). However, some of his fellow teachers call them "kids," not "students," and treat them as such. In turn, the students act like kids, are disrespectful, and do not trust those teachers.
This is why I am glad I work for the co-ops. We call people members. And our customer satisfaction scores tend to be higher than those that use those other terms. ;)
FSCDEBATE97 - I like the ring of "members" even better than customers. Although I may be a little biased because we at E Source call our utility customers "members" too. And I am glad that focusing on your members has led to increase CSAT scores at your co-op. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers! -Justin

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