Top Energy community relations case study

Explaining change and defusing debate

Regional electricity generator and lines network operator risked creating community dissatisfaction over changes to annual payments.

The challenge

Top Energy is a power generator and the operator of the electricity lines network in the Far North region of New Zealand. It works closely with the Top Energy Consumer Trust, a body that holds all of the shares in Top Energy on behalf of the region’s power consumers.

Each year local electricity account holders receive payments as a return from their ownership of Top Energy. Traditionally, this took the form of a dividend cheque issued towards the end of each year – just in time for Christmas – by the Top Energy Consumer Trust.

Top Energy and the Top Energy Consumer Trust wanted to change this system. By returning money to the community as a discount instead of as a dividend, substantial savings could be made and nearly a million dollars more could be returned to the community.

However, in order to be compliant with regulations the discounts had to be credited to individual electricity bills rather than distributed by cheque. The concern was that many members of the local community would see this as the loss of a significant cash injection in the immediate run-up to Christmas. A cheque they had become used to – and in many cases dependent on – would no longer be appearing in the post.

Enquiries were already coming into the Top Energy call centre to find out when the cheques would be posted. Action needed to be taken quickly to explain that the cheques would not be arriving, and why. And to help minimise the potential for a damaging backlash from a community of shareholders with whom the company had only recently rebuilt confidence and trust.

There was a secondary challenge. Despite dividend cheques bearing the logo and name of the Top Energy Consumer Trust, community awareness of the Trust was low and few people understood that they were receiving the cheques as shareholders in Top Energy. Many recipients believed the payments stemmed from their electricity retailers.

The change in process, with its planned credit to individual electricity retailer accounts, would not only reinforce this belief, but risked making Top Energy and the Trust an invisible part of the chain – further strengthening the damaging perception that the regular ‘Top Energy payment’ had disappeared.

And all right before Christmas.

The solution

Firstly, we knew we needed to stress the human face of Top Energy and the Top Energy Consumer Trust. We could not afford for this issue to become one of a faceless, impersonal organisation riding roughshod over the preferences of the community. From the imagery used in our collateral to the tone of voice used in our written materials, every care was taken to avoid a ‘corporate’ look and feel to our approach.

Appealing to the community’s innate sense of fair play was also important in mitigating against the personal impact of this change. We seized the moral high ground and quickly took Top Energy to the position where anyone complaining about the change could be perceived by the wider community as being on the wrong side of the fairness fence.

The argument, supported by the figures, was simple and compelling – this was a fairer way of distributing a greater amount of cash than would otherwise have been possible. Why would anyone want to stick with a system that would deny an extra million dollars to the community?

The line we adopted was ‘More for More’: more people would get more money; a greater number of low-usage customers, including the elderly, would receive a greater discount; and electricity users would receive discounts that better matched the scale of the power bills they had to pay.

As part of the ‘human face’ approach we took care to acknowledge wherever appropriate that this change would disappoint some people who had come to rely on the dividend cheque. However this was always set against the angles and messages outlined above.

Finally, in order to mitigate the complexity of the issue, we confined our explanation of the benefits of this approach to simple, easily-understood graphics, imagery and charts. These, rather than words, showed clearly what the implications were for each customer group, and how winners far outweighed losers.

Communication tactics included:

Help Desk We knew the Top Energy Help Desk would be one of the ‘lightning rods’ for criticism and complaint from the community. It was essential that Help Desk staff were fully aware of all the arguments for initiating this change, and all the messages we needed to deliver.Help Desk supervisors were drafted in to ensure we prepared adequately for the types of questions and criticism they would have to field, and Q&A documents were tailored specifically for Help Desk staff. They were fully briefed by supervisors and given an escalation plan, and processes were put in place to capture the scale and nature of the feedback we knew would be forthcoming. This was all closely monitored by the communication team in case the roll-out plan or our messaging had to be altered in any way to reflect the realities of the reaction.
Media and   Community Leader Briefings Other ‘lightning rods’ in the event of a community backlash would be local media, community leaders, local politicians and consumer groups such as Grey Power. Full and frank briefings were conducted with these very early on in the piece, and their buy-in was secured. This was easily achieved as the benefits of the new approach were immediately obvious and these were not people who were likely to need a cash cheque more than a credit to their power bills. However, by briefing them early on we reduced the risk of misunderstanding in the event that they were contacted later by disgruntled elements of the community. 
Internal briefings and Care packs   In a small community like the Far North we knew Top Energy staff would play a particularly important role as ambassadors for this initiative. So, in addition to the normal internal briefings you might expect, ‘Car Care’ packs were developed for all Top Energy-branded vehicles containing detailed sets of Talking Points as well as enquiry and feedback forms which would find their way back to the communication team in the event that a staff member felt unable to deal effectively with a complaint or query from a member of the public. 
Advertising   Adverts outlining the change were run on all commercial radio stations serving the Far North. Special attention was given to Maori-language radio stations as it was this section of the community that we anticipated would be most directly impacted by the change. Advertisements were developed in both English and Te Reo and drove listeners directly to the Top Energy Website for further information.We decided against running newspaper advertisements as we felt these would be wasteful and risked creating unnecessary debate and discussion. Instead, we felt written communication with electricity bill-payers could be more effectively achieved through direct mail. 
Personal contact and Direct Mail   Calls were made and personalised letters sent to each of Top Energy’s top 12 commercial customers, outlining and detailing the projected financial implications for each.Two direct mail shots were sent to every single electricity consumer  in the region. The first introduced the change and explained the reasons for it, focusing on all the key messages outlined above. Its arrival in post boxes was timed to coincide with news coverage in local newspapers arising from the media briefings conducted the previous week, and the news release issued at the same time.The second was designed to take the place of the actual cheque, drawing peoples’ attention to the fact that the rebate they would see on their December electricity bill came to them courtesy of Top Energy and not, as might be assumed, the electricity retailer. Its arrival was timed to coincide with delivery of the December power bills.Each of these two direct mailings were true to our overall communication strategy in that they were rich in graphics and low on text. And each featured photographs of a Top Energy employee and his family – presenting the all-important human face of the company and emphasising its place in the local community. 
Website/ Customer contact and response   We decided to use the Top Energy Website as the ‘shop window’ and ‘venting station’ for this communication exercise. We knew it was important to give people an opportunity to vent, and wanted to provide an avenue for them to do so as an alternative to phoning the Help Desk and shouting at an operator.A banner was added to the site’s homepage, driving people who wanted more information or who wanted to give us a piece of their mind to a dedicated micro-site. This contained a video message from CEO Russell Shaw (again, helping to present a personal face), a written explanation of what Top Energy was doing and why, and a comprehensive set of Q&As.It also contained an email contact template that delivered a message directly to TextWrite for compilation and response. In most cases, customer contact that came through this channel was responded to within an hour and in the form of a telephone call. This quick and highly personal response was hugely appreciated by almost everyone who got in touch and helped defuse some resentment and resolve some confusion.

The results

The result of all this work, planning and carefully-coordinated implementation was starkly simple. Through its various channels of communication with the public, over a period of three months, Top Energy received only 360 calls or emails on this topic from members of the public.

This compares favourably with over 1,600 in each previous year where other major changes had been made to the annual dividend payment system.

It saved the company a considerable amount of effort and expense in following up on interminable queries and clarifying errors of understanding.

Of the 360 calls or emails received as a result of this change, only 10 percent were to complain or voice disagreement about the change. The remainder were to query some aspect of the change, or even to congratulate Top Energy for implementing it.

Effective communication in this instance not only minimised the potential for consumer backlash, but also helped Top Energy maintain momentum in its drive to build confidence and trust among residents of the Far North.

They said it themselves

“I think everyone expected more difficulty with this transition.  When the initial call numbers were low, my team and I felt we would be likely to get a lift in call numbers around the time that the cheques would normally have been delivered. However, this did not occur either.  The numbers are very pleasing and it does show that the communication programme was very successful. The call centre team were happy with the way the internal communication was handled and it was good to be involved at the early stages.”

– Kathryn Starr, general manager, Phone Plus 2000 Ltd