Account management teams are the rubber band holding customer satisfaction together during moments of disruption. Flexible, adaptable, and adept at troubleshooting, handling change is in the DNA of utility account managers—including account executives and other titles.
We face unusual times and rapid evolution. As individuals we’ve all experienced significant change over the past few years—and we’re fatigued by it. The energy industry is no different, leaving leaders to wonder: How do I meet the future needs of our industry—with the right volume and velocity of change—in a manner that benefits our team and the customer experience? After all, we now face shifts in focus areas that include:
- Flexible load management
- Grid modernization
- DSM programmatic changes
- Inclusivity, equity, and environmental justice
You’re not alone if you’re wondering how to lead the way and help account management teams balance workloads, stay current, evolve their knowledge, be positive, and keep achieving. According to the J.D. Power 2021 Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study the number of business customers with an assigned account representative increased from 33% in the first wave of the study to 39% in the second wave. In fact, a dedicated account representative is associated with a 73-point increase in overall customer satisfaction.
The last thing any utility wants is to negatively impact customer satisfaction by forcing too much and too frequent change on their account management team—especially if it impacts responsiveness to customer needs. Yet, the reality is that account management teams are increasingly asked to operate in new ways.
These evolving expectations and demands on account management teams stem from the heightened focus on customer expectations. A new and younger majority of business decision-makers are now operating fully in the digital space. This is driving increased expectations of account management and marketing partnerships as more utilities embrace a new strategic framework of personalized connectedness with business customers.
The pandemic also disrupted the tried-and-true outreach best practices of face-to-face interactions. Because of all of this, account managers are asked to adopt and adapt to new tools and technology with greater scrutiny, like their daily CRM activity.
As if that’s not enough, the Great Resignation did not leave utility account management teams untouched. New staff are needed, onboarding is a regular activity, and teams are frequently reconfigured with account managers reassigned to different customers.
Change is dependent on people
While your change is likely about processes or technology adoption, your success is dependent on people. Thanks to the Innovation Adoption Curve, we know that people react to change in different ways and at different speeds. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so you need to consider your team composition and where each member may fall on this curve:
- Innovators: Who is likely to act quickly, embrace new ideas, and want to be first?
- Early adopters: Who is quick to see someone else try first and then want to jump in, too?
- Early majority: Who is waiting to see if it works before they give it a try?
- Late majority: Who will wait to see most of the team embracing the idea or change before joining?
- Laggards: Who might you expect to never fully adopt a new idea or change?
If you know your staff well, you’ll understand how each team member will react to change and where they may fall on this curve. You can identify who needs to be kept in close contact, who needs to be simply informed, and who can act as champions to influence others.
Manage velocity and volume of change requests
You don’t have to do it all—and you certainly don’t have to do it all at once. Consider establishing a joint council that crosscuts key functional areas and departments such as account management (leaders and account managers), billing, customer service, communications, public relations, program delivery, IT, outages and maintenance, and so on. Task this council with:
- Establishing a set of criteria to evaluate the need, feasibility, and timing of a recommended change
- Prioritizing requested changes based on need and impact
- Ensuring different levels of staff across various departments that will play a direct role with change impact and engagement
- Identifying milestones and desired completion dates for rollouts
- Determining how success will be measured over time
- Leadership focus
- Cost to implement (hard and soft costs)
- Impact on goal(s)
- Team readiness
- Duration of time to implement
When establishing your evaluation criteria and prioritization, include a variety of factors and consider ranking each on a scale of high, medium, and low importance, or use a numerical ranking scale of 0 (low) to 10 (high).
It is critical to be transparent with account managers regarding both the process and outcomes. Be willing to use their feedback to inform council outputs and to make course corrections, but don’t let a few slow adopters drag down the necessary velocity of change.
Focus on engagement
Once a change is identified and work begins, it’s important that leaders establish a framework for successful implementation across the team. However, it’s also worthwhile to do an internal gut check before communicating. Just because you’re tasked with managing a change doesn’t mean you personally fall under the “Innovator” or “Early Adopter” categories. Once you reflect on how you respond to change, you can identify any unintentional feelings you may project in communications.
When ready, consider the following best practices for engagement with the team:
- Be transparent: People feel more committed to an outcome if they’ve been included from the start. Be sure your council communicates throughout the process. Don’t spring a new system or process on your team on the day you’re ready to launch.
- Listen: Make team and individual meetings a safe space to hear concerns, questions, and positives. Check in regularly.
- Identify champions: Find early champions—council members or not—and ask them to be a voice for others. Tap them to speak up in meetings or present new information alongside you.
- Overcommunicate: Be clear not just about what has changed but why it has changed and what the outcome will be for staff—individually and collectively as a team. Partner with your marketing team on internal communications and consider adopting an internal campaign with an underlying “fear of missing out” tone.
- Adjust goals: Account managers are always “on.” How will you help your staff adjust their goals to accommodate for the learning curve and adoption of the change you’re asking of them? What takes precedent over something else? Be proactive in explaining this.
- Empower: Train, train, and then train again. Refresher trainings are a proven best practice. Remember that everyone learns differently, so provide visual and written information. You might even consider adopting a buddy system to help with cross-team sharing.
- Reward: Habits are hard to break. Small bite-size actions over time with nudges and rewards can help reinforce the new behavior during the initial period of adoption.
- Promote accountability: Keep everyone regularly updated on progress. Show individual team members how they are doing.
Remember, your team speaks with customers and nurtures them to the next best action on a daily basis. Everyone is in the role of cross-selling, upselling, and nurturing. Each team member must know how to have a dialogue with someone in order to explain a new process or the benefits. Use those same talking points on one another. Just think: What would we tell a customer about a new change?