Will O’Donnell shares takeaways from the panel he moderated at NWPPA’s NIC event. The panel was called “Building A Digital Bridge — Engaging Consumers During and After the Pandemic.” Apologies in advance to the cruise industry.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: How are utilities engaging consumers during and after the pandemic? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Will O’Donnell, who is the communications director with Jefferson PUD. Thanks for joining me, Will.
Will O’Donnell: Hey, thanks for having me.
Andy Johns: So Will was a moderator on a panel here. We are once again back at the NIC Conference put on by the NWPPA here in Portland, Oregon. We’re recording at our booth here. So if there’s any extemporaneous noises, as we always say, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance. Because we’re right here where a lot of great minds from the utility industry, a lot of great utility communicators are here sharing ideas, swapping best practices and all that. And Will, pretty much everything we were talking about right before we hit the record button, pretty much everything has been something related to the pandemic. Your session was talking about that almost exclusively, but just looking at ways. The title of the session was “Building a Digital Bridge: Engaging Consumers During and After the Pandemic.” So for the folks who weren’t able to attend, how would you kind of sum up the way the session went today?
Will O’Donnell: Yeah. So everybody right now is just still in the midst after all this time. We were hoping to be moving past the pandemic. We’re still in it, and we’re still kind of saturated with it. So what we tried to talk about was how we got through it, and what did we do to kind of innovate to connect with our customers better when you’re basically shut off. I mean, the doors are closed for so many utilities. Our customer service lobby is still closed a year and a half, almost two years, later. So how do we keep in touch with those folks? And the interesting thing is — because I wrote an article about this for the NWPPA bulletin, I think in January — the thing that I found was that a lot of folks took this as impetus to put into place new technology policies, adopt new technology policies. Or in our case, we had all these things we wanted to do, but they just never reached the top of the priority list until the pandemic came. And what I found was that a lot of folks are doing practices that they’re going to keep doing after the pandemic. And the interesting part about that is that there are some repercussions in that, especially moving more towards digital communication where in our utility, our board meetings are all online. Those used to only be in public and now all of our service applications are online.
Will O’Donnell: Anything you need to get from the PUD where you used to have to fill out a paper application, and you’d come into the office to do it. And that was the only way you could. Now you can just do it on your cell phone. I mean, it has made it that easy. So it’s great. It’s so much faster. I think we’ve increased efficiencies in a lot of our processes. And even though that our public meetings for our elected board of commissioners and staff are now only online, and folks can’t literally physically go into them. It’s so easy to access them — they are archived online any way you want, or you can participate from anywhere you want. So in some ways, there is greater accessibility because of these technological tools, but it comes back down to what gets lost in that. You know, that human connection is a big part of the process for public utilities. Engaging with your customers, having a sense of your community and more and more our communities are becoming in our devices. Right now, we’re connecting over technology. Someone’s going to listen to it through the device, and we’re not going to meet in a bar or swap stories that way.
Andy Johns: We could, though. Maybe we should try to set that up. Maybe we’ll work on that. A podcast listener happy hour.
Will O’Donnell: Yeah, we need to have a couple of drinks for the next podcast.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. Well, and there’s a lot to unpack in what you just said. And I want to talk about longterm ramifications and what all this means. But let’s go back to what you were saying earlier, just about the change in consumer expectations. That we saw a lot of big companies, big organizations, national brands shift pretty quickly to changing the way they did things. And you could argue that that’s certainly been a switch over the years. But it’s something that when you talk about those expectations, about being able to do things digitally online, that’s something that folks came to expect, if not already, then quickly in the pandemic. And then local utilities and a lot of cases had to adapt very quickly to meet those expectations. Is that a fair assessment?
Will O’Donnell: Yeah, yeah. And what’s interesting is that makes me think about what we did with our online service applications. One, it’s interesting that the pandemic hit at this time when the majority of the population has a smartphone. Even folks that don’t have internet connections, even folks that are in some pretty severe poverty situations, a lot of them still have access to low-cost smartphones and have some cellular data connections. So what we always had through the website and probably most utilities had is you had like a downloadable PDF, and you could print it out, and then you could fill it out, and then you could mail it in, and do all these things. Or maybe you had a fillable PDF. But those things were never designed to make life easy for the customer. Those were designed to make it easy for the staff to process.
Andy Johns: Excellent point.
Will O’Donnell: So what this opportunity afforded us is like, OK, we’ve got to take all these people who aren’t super digital savvy and adapt our tools so that they can use them. Otherwise, you know, they’re going to be banging on our doors. Or they’re going to try to walk them through over the phone. And in my case, that’s what I became obsessed with is just trying to get those work out those applications. Like do we need to know this, do we need to know that? Make it so simple, and I think a lot of folks went through that all over the place. And in that way, we’re connecting better. But again, we’re now taking out that step where there’s that face-to-face connection. Where we don’t, you know, and we don’t have smart meters, but if you had a smart meter, you immediately put in your application, they could turn it on the service. You don’t see anybody. Which, maybe you don’t need to, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to put a face with the person I talked to at the utility, or I saw that person come out and plug in the meter. I’m not for analog meters or anything like that, but it’s just an interesting thing to think about that easier connection, but more distance, if that makes sense.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. It makes sense, and it’s something that we’ve talked about on the broadband side of things. Especially that moment of interaction is kind of a chance to do some listening and see if this the right speed tier, the right package that you need to sign up for? In that sign up, am I going to hear you signed up for the lowest speed package, but you tell me you have four kids at home who are all trying to stream movies at the same time. You know, there are some conversations about that. And then more on the electric side of things, some other programs are just options that there may be. So definitely that opportunity is there. I know when I’m thinking back on the session earlier today, you know, annual meetings and live events was something that was certainly discussed. And the panelists and yourself had some examples and stories there. What are some of the ways that you’ve been encouraged in the way that the utility is — either that was brought up at the panel today or other things that you’ve seen from being in the industry — what are some ways you’re encouraged by the ways that utilities are communicating and engaging with their folks during the pandemic?
Will O’Donnell: Yeah, I just love how resilient people are. And you saw from the presenters on the stage, Ross Holter from Flathead Electric Co-op in Montana and Joanna Stelzig from Tillamook PUD in Oregon. You know, they both had annual meetings and events that they did as drive-up events. And the pictures that Ross had of their annual meeting, where everybody just parked next to each other, and the staff went from the car to car and delivered things. And just seeing the degree that people still want to connect and still want to be engaged was really inspiring, and they did a great job of doing outreach. You know, in our town, when the high school kids graduated in 2020, they did little car parades through the community, things like that. And yeah, so it was great to just find ways to connect from a distance and just kind of adapt. It’s funny because I can be quite critical, but I’m always impressed how quickly people will adapt when they need to. You just have to put in the right set of incentives to get folks to adapt, and most of the time most people will adapt. They don’t always like change, and I think most people will try to do everything they can to resist change if they have the option, but take the option away, and people are pretty adaptable.
Andy Johns: Yeah, right. The whole necessity is …
Will O’Donnell: … the mother of invention.
Andy Johns: Exactly. Well, I was going to ask this a little bit later, but let’s go ahead and get into it with the annual meetings. One of the key parts to that session, to me anyway, one of the more — I don’t want to say one of the more interesting because there was a lot of interesting parts to it. But you asked the question, and I thought it was really good to ask it that you asked something to the effect of how many of you did the some kind of a different annual meeting or annual event? And, you know, basically asked them if they liked it, if that was a good way to do it. And people seemed to. And then you ask how many of you are going to continue that? And there were a lot of more timid hands to go up. I was kind of surprised a lot of the people that said it worked good for us. You know, we liked it. And then you ask if they were going to do it again. And it was like, well, I don’t know. I mean, it was really interesting to me to see that dynamic at play.
Will O’Donnell: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing is because and that was something I was trying to tease out in the panel that I don’t think we probably spend enough time on is like, what are the things that you’re doing differently now that you want to keep doing.
Andy Johns: Exactly.
Will O’Donnell: But that was the thing where it’s successful, it’s working. But folks kind of want to go back to the old comfortable, and maybe that’s better. I mean, just because it works doesn’t mean it works better than the thing before.
Andy Johns: That’s true.
Will O’Donnell: But you know, that’s been the interesting part about the pandemic where, you know, it was like, well, you know, we don’t want to go back to the way it was before. This has been, one of the things I heard was that it was an accelerant to change. So a lot of things have changed really quickly, and we don’t want to go back. I mean, me personally, and I hope nobody takes offense from this, but like, I don’t know why we have to have cruise ships, the giant floating toilet bowls. You know, it’s just like one of those things like maybe we don’t need to do that. But even before COVID, there was this thing called norovirus, right? And it spread really well on cruise ships.
Will O’Donnell: But we’ll go back to cruise ships and people have fun on them, and I don’t need to pass judgment. But it’s just one of those things where, like, what opportunities can we take to do new things, and what are things where we are comfortable in that old way. Let’s go back to the comfortable. We, in our utility, have a commission that split between some of them would like to just continue virtual and others would love to go back right away and likes that direct interaction. So we’re going to probably move forward with a hybrid, which is how I think most folks will do is continue on with this hybrid model. But like with hybrid cars, you know, you have a hybrid car, you got a gasoline engine and an electric engine. It’s kind of ridiculous in some ways. You know, you open up the hood of electric car. It’s so simple. There’s so little to break, so little to fix. And, you know, not even just from an environmental standpoint, but just from a maintenance standpoint. So in some ways, you know, are we over-complicating everything by trying to make everything hybrid and keep every option open going forward? So it just depends.
Andy Johns: Every option going forward, except for StoryConnect: The Podcast ever being able to get a sponsorship from Royal Caribbean now. So that’s out the window for us. You know, one door opens, one door closes.
Will O’Donnell: I don’t speak for StoryConnect podcast.
Andy Johns: One of the things that I always ask towards the end of an episode is, you guys obviously made some adjustments and have taken some steps to engage folks. The panelists did as well. If we’ve got some folks who are listening communicators at a at a utility who are saying, you know, it was tough a couple of years. We didn’t do a lot of engagement. But now, like we were talking about this new normal, somebody is on the fence and nobody really likes change. It’s always kind of difficult. What advice do you have for somebody who is stuck looking at that new normal going forward and figuring out how to adapt and still engage consumers?
Will O’Donnell: I mean, I think really, it’s just important to go back to looking at your goals. What are your true goals? What are your true values, and how do you go about meeting them? And if you look at those really clearly, I think it’s easier to kind of get a sense of what technologies or what methods you want to move forward with. I think it’s often when it’s hazy on what is the goal or what is the objective or what are the values that people get kind of the hackles get riled in that kind of situation.
Andy Johns: It’s been a hackle riling kind of a year all the way across. Anything else that you’ve heard? And bigger than this session here, but let’s close on this thought. But whether on this session or any of the breakouts today, has there been anything that you’ve heard here at the NIC that stood out or any overarching themes that you have have noticed? I know it’s still on on day one here, but what are you seeing so far?
Will O’Donnell: I think people are really happy to be back in person, but I don’t want to say everybody’s guards are up, but we’re just not past the pandemic yet. So everybody is just a little cautious. You know, it’s just kind of an interesting energy, but people are glad to be here, and I’m so glad to be here. And I’m so glad to see everybody in person. I didn’t do the virtual conference. I just couldn’t spend any more time on Zoom. So but I think those are wonderful ways, especially having the archives to be able to watch everything on demand. I am a huge podcast fan because I love to be able to listen to something when I want to listen to it. We have a local radio station, and I’m always pushing them to do a better job of archiving their radio shows because they have some great things, but they won’t put them out for two months. They just don’t have enough volunteers to do it. But yeah, being able to listen to the thing on demand and the amount of learning that can take place that way. When you come across a problem and you’re like, I wonder what they’ve got recorded for sessions back there. New subscription opportunities.
Andy Johns: That’s true. That’s true. Well, I want to thank you, the listener, for putting this podcast on demand, for listening to learning things here from from Will. And Will, I want to thank you for being on with me.
Will O’Donnell: And thank you, Royal Caribbean for sponsoring this podcast. I apologize.
Andy Johns: He is Will O’Donnell, the communications director at Jefferson PUD. My name is Andy Jones, your host. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.