Editor's note: Michael Vigeant is president and CEO of GreatBlue Research Inc., Meriden, Conn. He can be reached at mjv@greatblueresearch.com. This article appeared in the August 27, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.

Many companies in the utilities industry are facing declining revenue due to decreased volume, largely a result of customers' energy conservation efforts. Despite this diminished revenue, customers continue to expect infrastructure improvements. Often, the only feasible answer to funding infrastructure improvements is requesting a rate increase.

Before beginning the intensive - and often inevitable - process associated with a rate increase, it's beneficial to gauge the satisfaction level of both customers and employees. Are your customers aware of the costs associated with repairing and/or replacing infrastructure? Do customers practice conversation methods? Are they aware of the utility company's commitment to the communities it serves? Are your employees satisfied? Would they be prepared to field customer concerns regarding a proposed rate increase?

The water utility industry, for example, is going through substantial change as consumers become more aware of conservation methods. Market research is invaluable as utilities seek to evaluate satisfaction levels internally and externally, as well as capture a snapshot of customer behavior. In preparation for a rate increase, gauging the current internal and external environments is critical. The information gathered serves as the foundation for connecting and creating an understanding with customers impacted by the change and the employees engaging with those customers.

Understand the need

Before beginning market research, you must understand the need for research and know what questions your utility wants answered from both customers and employees. Data can be gathered from a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods. Once you create the research instrument, carefully draft and review the questionnaire to ensure it is objective.

If your utility chooses to put forth its own customer survey to determine overall satisfaction levels, consider including these survey questions:

  1. What one thing does our utility do GREAT?
  2. To improve our service to you, what one thing do we need to focus attention on TODAY?
  3. How would you describe your relationship with our business? (Less than satisfied, satisfied, loyal, advocate, etc.)
  4. Are there any products or services that you need, which you believe we can offer? If yes, please describe.
  5. What makes us different from other companies you do business with?
  6. What information are you interested in receiving from us?
  7. What is an appropriate frequency in which we may communicate with you?
  8. Are you familiar with our commitment to your community?
  9. What are the top three expectations you have from our utility? 

Subsequently, identify how the data will be collected and consider computer programming and data preparation. Upon completion of data collection, the results need to be carefully analyzed and thoroughly reported. Accurate analysis should result in actionable data.

Communication preferences

In addition to gathering background information about the consumer's awareness of the utility, market research also provides crucial feedback on communication preferences. As the digital world increases the number of potential touchpoints with consumers, knowing the preferred method of communication is essential. This information ensures the utility is best using its resources and connecting to customers in a way that encourages engagement, feedback and acceptance of a possible rate increase.

Based on the results of the research and the diversity of the audience, the interaction needs to be carefully crafted. Previous research conducted by J.D. Power and Associates shows that the 8095 generation (those born between 1980 and 1995) are a unique audience with increased purchasing power and the experiences created for them must be unique as well. For this generation, nothing matters more than trust. Fifty percent use more than four sources for brand decisions and 80 percent have taken action on behalf of trusted brands. Position your utility as a trusted brand and the result could be brand ambassadors who speak favorably at a rate case hearing.

Build trust

Utilities must be prepared to create experiences that build trust between the customer and the employee. When customers trust the company, they are more likely to embrace a rate increase for infrastructure improvements. Trust is built through frequent communication that is supported by positive interactions with employees. Employees have the opportunity to educate customers and to build the trust necessary for support during a rate increase.

In addition to measuring customer satisfaction, building the case for a rate increase also starts with benchmarking the satisfaction of employees. The attitude that employees carry within an office or out in the field is immediately conveyed in customer interactions, making it vital that employees always serve as brand ambassadors. With an impending rate increase, for example, employees must know, understand and be able to articulate the benefits to a customer. Employees must also feel empowered to handle extenuating customer circumstances, as well as feel valued as contributors to ensure positive customer solutions.

Thanks to daily interaction with customers, employees of various levels can offer insight that will help anticipate consumer reaction and offer incredible opportunities for preparation. Wanting to be heard, customers seek out moments when a company has prepared for concerns and can offer valuable solutions. Through survey input, employees arm the organization with best practices for these moments and solidify the entire company as a unified and trusted presence.

Time is no barrier

Whether the planning process toward change is just beginning or nearing the end, time is no barrier with research. Market research is always a valuable tool and can be utilized both internally and externally to improve the overall utility experience. The awareness gained from market research lends to opportunity, which - when handled with care - leads to a relationship. This relationship will flourish when backed by dual awareness, understanding and trust built through the strategic influence of market research.