Breaking Out of the Utility Bubble: Citizens Energy Draws Customer Service Inspiration from Other Industries

Michael Strohl
Michael Strohl,
Senior Vice President, Chief Customer Officer,
Citizens Energy Group

Citizens Energy Group is a diverse utility service company, providing natural gas, thermal energy, water and wastewater services, and oil to about 800,000 people and thousands of businesses in the Indianapolis area. But this isn’t your typical corporation. Citizens Energy is actually a Public Trust, founded 127 years ago to protect the local gas assets from takeover by monopolies like Standard Oil, as well as negative influences that can arise from political influence over basic infrastructure assets. Under this unique governance structure, the Trust has an independent board of trustees who appoint a nine-member board of directors, but there are no shareholders to serve and no political agendas to appease. Rather, the beneficiaries of the Trust are the very customers Citizens Energy serves. Each leader, executive, and employee at Citizens Energy Group works solely in the interest of the customer. As long as it fulfills its mission, Citizens cannot be sold.

But any organization started in the 1800s is bound to have some growing pains as it evolves and adapts to society’s modern needs. Throughout the early 2000s, Citizens went through a series of acquisitions. The company met its biggest challenge in 2011, when the acquisition of the water and wastewater utilities in Indianapolis tripled the balance sheet, doubled the number of customers, and nearly doubled the size of the workforce. The newly acquired company also brought along some very outdated systems that required significant and costly infrastructure improvements. So the organization was forced to increase its rates, which resulted in … you guessed it, unhappy customers. From the customer’s viewpoint, the combination of utilities should result in more efficient service and elimination of redundant costs, yet they were paying more without seeing any new benefits. The company found itself facing a group of very confused and very frustrated customers — and this was not part of the acquisition plan.

Citizens knew something had to be done quickly to remedy the situation. But instead of following traditional tactics, the company went in another direction. Call it innovative, out-of-the box, or just plain crazy, but when faced with a potential customer service crisis, Citizens Energy Group decided to do something  completely different from what any utility company in the country had done before.

Wind Energy

The Watercooler® Newsletter had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Strohl, Senior Vice President, Chief Customer Officer, to learn why the company took such a radical approach to its customer experience and how this is changing Citizens Energy Group for the better. Here’s what he had to say:

When Best in Class Isn’t Enough

The idea to change our approach to customer service came when I was at an industry conference. Someone suggested we amp up our game by comparing ourselves not to our competitors in the utility industry (who aren’t necessarily always known for providing stellar customer service relative to other industries) but to the last experience a customer had — period. So, if a customer purchased something at a leading customer-first brand, let’s say Zappos, and then came to our site, we need to make sure the Citizens experience is just as intuitive, just as easy, and just as exceptional.

Our people are very proud of the culture we have around customer satisfaction. We’ve won four J.D. Power Awards for customer satisfaction as the No. 1 mid-sized gas utility in the Midwest. So, it’s clear that we’ve exceeded expectations compared to our peers. But I realized that with the very nature of the service we provide —a basic human need — we should be delivering an outstanding customer experience that transcends ALL industries.

With the acquisition and subsequent rising rate environment necessary to fix and replace deteriorating infrastructure, the only way we could successfully navigate this sticky situation was to build solid relationships with our customers, so we could explain the reasons behind the rate increases. They needed to see the value in the higher rates. And the status quo wasn’t working. We now needed to develop a plan to address these issues head on and figure out a way to improve customer approval, despite increased rates. It was then that our leadership team decided to challenge our organizational culture to:

  • Stop simply comparing ourselves to others in the utility industry.
  • Re-evaluate what we do in terms of customer service and to analyze everything — even our best work.
  • Take a hard look to see if we could stand up to the best of the best outside of the utility business.

Taking the time — and the risk — to pose this challenge was no simple feat. It meant analyzing the very core of our work and then asking our people to do the same. When we faced the truth that we actually needed to improve, we knew we had to find a partner to help get all employees on board. These were people accustomed to being praised by the industry for giving outstanding customer service and we wanted to ask them to change their behaviors. We needed to tell them that despite the fact that everyone thought what we did was working so well, we decided it might not be the best approach after all. That’s confusing. A major mindset shift had to occur. This type of cultural transformation can be difficult and we couldn’t go at it alone.

Goals and a Game Plan

After deciding we were ready to make some pretty dramatic changes, we crafted four goals for ourselves:

  • Create a customer-first culture
  • Create a superior digital experience for our customers
  • Give the customers more decision-making power
  • Become a transparent company that’s really easy to do business with

We now needed a partner that would quickly command the attention of our people and help connect them to our goal of becoming a leading provider of customer service—beyond the utility sector. We had previous experience working with Root Inc., and we knew the Root Compass® Manager Development Program was an ideal solution for us because of its engaging, hands-on methodology and its ability to prepare our managers to lead the change. We needed our managers to believe in the new strategy and instill this same belief and passion in their teams manning the customer service experience on the frontline. We knew that once our managers were engaged and committed to the plan, and had the knowledge and tools to get their people on board for the long-term too, then we would be on the right track for accomplishing our four goals.

When we started working with Root and the Root Compass solution, we made the decision to be completely open — we shared all of our data and research with the Root team. Root then brought in a team who sat in the call center, shadowed our customer service reps, and even went out with our field crews. Root didn’t simply want a summary of the challenge from Citizens’ internal perspective, but wanted to see it through the customer’s eyes to find the bottlenecks to our customer experience. Our teams felt confident in the service we were delivering, so we needed an outside perspective to help introduce a new way of thinking.

It didn’t take long for the Root team to identify a few key issues: 1) While our middle managers were functionally excellent leaders of tasks, they were not as connected as we needed them to be to our organizational strategy, and 2) We had delegation and communication issues as a result of the blending of three cultures into one that resulted from the acquisition.

We knew Root Compass would help us remedy these issues, as it’s designed to hone the most important managerial skills — to help managers learn how to lead more effectively, build productive relationships with their teams, and connect teams and individuals to the larger strategic mission so everyone can work in concert to achieve success.

But before rollout could begin, we needed full support from all 16 officers at the company. Our organization is made up of engineers and accountants … we typically think in a linear fashion. But our team felt very encouraged by the creative Root Compass approach. We believed in its ability to connect our people to our business by making them a part of the process. Root Compass isn’t about a PowerPoint listing out bullets. Instead it’s peer-led, small group trainings designed to engage all participants, shift their mindsets, and help them discover new techniques through honest and open dialogues.

So, we agreed to commit to transforming our customer experience. The stage was set for massive change.

Our CEO hosted a web chat to explain how our new approach to the customer experience was vital to the success of the company. Root then held a train-the-trainers session in late July. These trainers began leading our supervisory reps (180 in total), split into small groups, through the Root Compass program. The final trainings were completed in early November.

Converting a Culture

Converting an entire way of being for a person or organization is no small task. We did meet some resistance from employees, which wasn’t unexpected since we had been receiving praise for our customer service skills. They just didn’t initially expect — or understand — the need for change. But the chaos that ensued following the acquisition that doubled our size brought with it many unhappy customers. So, in the end, there was no option but to do something differently. Citizens is proudly made up of many long-term employees and third- and fourth-generation employees. Our people are truly committed to doing their best and if that means shaking things up to accomplish change, then they are on board.

The biggest challenge we’ve faced to date is getting the organization to operate with a greater sense of urgency. We have a lot to accomplish — taking 180 managers through Root Compass, revamping the website, launching a new social media program and completely renovating actual Citizens locations. Root provided input here as well and helped us to design a new lobby experience that was all about the customer, one that will be more attractive and easier to navigate with more signs, do-it-yourself kiosks, monitors that display relevant information and instructions, and even a play area for kids. Yes, we’re going there, too. We’re truly flipping our customer experience upside down and taking it to levels that no one else has in the utility world so that we’re up there with the best of the best, not just on par with our utility industry peers.

The Future

While we’ve only recently completed the full rollout of Root Compass, during which we trained more than 180 managers during a three-month time frame, I’ve already received feedback that proves the training has had an impact. After experiencing Root Compass, one manager committed to “be more intentional about connecting with my staff.  I was doing this to an extent before Root Compass training but am now even more convinced of its importance and that I need to make a more concerted effort.”

Another manager told me that he is now focusing “on additional investment in emotional capital through increased one-on-one time with staff and purposeful delegation of tasks to encourage learning and growth.”

In addition to the personal testaments from our managers, we have some great numbers to share too:

  • We’ve increased the number of customers enrolled in electronic billing by 150%, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings.
  • We’ve increased mobile application access from 9,000 visits per month to 45,000 visits per month.

Empowering our managers to grow as leaders and connect with their people, who will then be able to deliver new levels of customer service, has been invigorating. It’s exciting to see the start of the culture shift and to see preliminary indications that customer satisfaction results are improving. Each time a manager tells me that he or she learned something new, or feels even more equipped as a leader, or has seen a positive difference within his or her team, I become even more excited for what is yet to come. Stay tuned — I hope to have even more to results to share once Citizens completes our goal for setting the standard for customer-first cultures.

Training Wrap-Up Video

Watch the Training Wrap-Up Video to learn what the people had to say about the experience.