In one of his more famous PowerWalking videos from several years ago, E Source’s chief instigation agent Bill LeBlanc asked people on the street, “If your utility was an animal, what kind of animal would it be and why?” (To view the conversation, fast-forward the video to 7:22.) Some of the best responses were:

  • A turtle, because they live a long time; [they’re] kind of slow but dependable.
  • Some kind of blood-sucking viper with no natural enemies.
  • An octopus, with tentacles all over, strangling people.

You can safely assume that utilities have a serious image problem when the nicest response was a turtle! Of course, many large corporations have image problems, particularly after very public customer service fiascos make their way into the headlines. There was the United Breaks Guitars viral video in which a musician bashed the airline for, well, breaking his guitar. And Bank of America was vilified after announcing it would start charging customers a monthly fee to use their debit card. The bank withdrew its plan after it received a petition—signed by hundreds of thousands of people—to abolish the fee.

Cable companies have no shortage of customer-service, public-relations disasters. Just this year, Comcast was nailed for changing a customer’s name to an expletive on his bill. The company was also the butt of jokes after a customer posted an audio recording of his phone conversation with a Comcast customer service rep. In the recording, you can hear the customer trying to cancel his Internet service, but the infuriating retention representative won’t let him.

And then there’s Pepco, the electric utility that serves Maryland and Washington, DC. Pepco has never committed an egregious gaffe that’s caught the media’s attention, but it has consistently ranked near the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys like J.D. Power and the American Customer Satisfaction Index due to abysmal reliability and a poor outage-restoration track record. Now imagine that you’ve been asked to turn around the “most hated company in America”. Where do you even begin? And the bigger question is, are you crazy to want to take on this challenge?

Two women were brave enough: Laura Monica, vice president of corporate communications at Pepco, and MaryBeth Vrees, director of customer communications and marketing at the utility, were brought in to transform Pepco’s image. At this year’s E Source Forum in October, we’ll hear firsthand from Laura and MaryBeth about how the utility drastically improved customer satisfaction, in part by reengineering the communications department and developing integrated strategies to improve day-to-day and storm communications. You won’t want to miss this lively discussion. Maybe you’ll even come away with a few tips and tricks on how to transform your utility’s image from a T-Rex to a terrier, which, according to one PowerWalking interviewee, is “comforting. You need it; you like it. Ultimately it still costs you, but it’s worth it.”