What Comes After the People’s Climate March?

There’s no denying that the People’s Climate March was historic and deserves all the superlatives being thrown at it. The fact that more than 300,000 people in New York and thousands of others around the world marched for action on climate change is astounding and something some of us in the climate movement probably couldn’t envision just a few short years ago. We should all be proud. Like many such great events, the question naturally becomes, “what’s next?”

Fortunately, the climate movement’s unofficial leader is a man brimming with ideas and the ability to communicate them. Bill McKibben, founder and Chair of 350.org, has written persuasively and passionately about climate change for years. He understands the power of the “message” as well as anyone in the movement. His main action item these days seems to be the fossil-fuel divestment movement. In that regard, we scored a major victory with the recent announcement that the Rockefeller Foundation is divesting of fossil fuel investments. But is divestment really the answer to “what’s next?” Is it the answer that will get us to our ultimate goal of dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change?

The road to reaching our ultimate goal must somehow go through a process to make emissions reductions the law of the land. I can’t think of any way this happens without Congress passing legislation.  This is where the way ahead becomes murky. Is the strategy to make investment in fossil fuels so unpopular that enough funds and major shareholders divest, which in turn scares the fossil fuel industry into working with its erstwhile allies in Congress to pass laws?  Or is the plan to get rank and file American voters concerned enough about climate change to be galvanized by this new movement they see and thus ratchet up the pressure on their legislators to make something happen?  Or maybe it’s to protest loudly enough and often enough to reach some kind of tipping point that we can’t even fathom at this time?

We have a wonderful new opportunity to scale up the climate movement in a way that’s never happened before thanks to McKibben, the many other climate activist groups, and the 300,000 people that showed up in New York. Let’s think long and hard about a strategy going forward to ensure this great display of people power doesn’t fizzle out.

Consumer Woes: Customer Service in the Age of the Big Box

It’s not just the energy industry that is having problems with customer service. One of the most common refrains you’ll hear from consumers today is that customer service is either non-existent or outright horrible at most retail or web outlets. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the move away from locally owned and operated businesses is that you, the consumer, have little to no leverage or recourse to use when customer service is terrible.

I have not done a scientific study, but my experience in retail stores tells me that part of the problem in customer service is the fact that there are fewer employees doing more jobs than before. For example, when I’ve gone to Fedex-Kinkos a few times recently, I noticed that there is often just one or two people behind the counter, and these people are answering the phones, making copies, checking print jobs, trying to help customers, and checking people out when it’s time to pay. In this model, there’s no way these people can do a good job at customer service.

Another example is similar. In BestBuy, I personally witnessed a single person staffing the Geek Squad desk who had to answer the phone, help check out a customer, and check on another customer’s order. If the phone rang, I’m sure she’d have to answer it as well.

Simply put, these stores are not putting their employees in a position to offer great customer service.  If an employee wants to offer great customer service, he/she has to go well above and beyond. This happened to me at Panerra’s, where I was trying to find a gluten-free option for lunch, but didn’t want salad. The cashier went through all the options with me very patiently, and when I didn’t choose one and instead just ordered tea, she gave me the tea for no charge. I wish there were some reward for this woman who made me feel good by her small touch of understanding for my plight. Unfortunately, in the corporate world where she works, she will find it difficult to build a longer term rapport with customers.

The web and phone is no better, as it appears many brands use computer voice generated programs to screen calls, and if you actually get through to somebody they have no power to do anything to help you, the customer.

Contrast all this with the service you get from a place owned by your neighbor, or the woman who’s child goes to your child’s school. Locally owned businesses are much more sensitive to customer service, as they are likely to see an unhappy customer somewhere in town, and a few bad reports can ruin their business. With the big box stores, you can complain until you are blue in the face because they have about a million other customers and don’t care if they lose you.

Why is Contempt for Customers so Common?

For a long time, I thought the thing that differentiated Clean Currents the most was our exclusive commitment to clean energy and the fact that we walked the real green walk. Now that I’ve got some perspective on things, and I can see the broader electricity market, I realize that there’s another attribute that can compete for the key differentiator of the company. In a word, I’d say it’s “Integrity,” and it most relates to one of the most overlooked parts of business – customer service.

Check out the web sites of pretty much every retail electricity supplier and they all claim in some respect or another to have amazing service. While I can’t speak from actual direct experience, I know that when we presented Clean Currents business plan to industry experts and insiders, the most typical response was something like, “wow, you guys have incredible customer loyalty, but you spend too much on customer service.” See, it’s hard to trace a direct line from customer service to increased profits. Thus, these experts would point out that almost every supplier simply outsources customer service or pays some hourly wage employees to answer the phones. When it comes to customer service, unfortunately, there are no Tony Hsieh  (Zappos) types in the energy industry.

There’s also an attitude that acquiring customers takes precedence from an organizational perspective over keeping customers. This is in part because many consumers simply sign up for an energy supplier and don’t change for a long time. Following business as usual practices, thus, will mean you get to keep a good chunk of customers anyway.  In this rush to acquire customers, ethics and integrity go out the window.

In one recent example, a class action suit filed against the electricity supplier, Viridian in District Court in Maryland alleges that Viridian mislead consumers into signing up with them by making it seem like there could be “savings.” “At a minimum, Defendant exploits ambiguities in their representations by creating the expectation of competitive pricing, when in fact the promise of savings in their energy bills is illusory,” the suit alleges.

Viridian is not alone in these questionable marketing tactics. I remember small commercial customers complaining to us that they got switched when a rep from the utility came in and told them they could lower their electricity rate. Turns out the rep was actually from Liberty Power, a retail supplier who had switched them to their service. This deception happens in the green power field as well. One direct mail piece making the rounds seems like it’s coming from your local utility offering you a “clean energy option,” that you didn’t have before. You simply check a box and send a form back and poof, you get clean energy. However, the small print reveals this is a mailer from a competitive electricity supplier and not from your local utility, and the rates are variable. Several people, some of whom are in the energy business, have asked me about this, saying that they didn’t know the utility was offering clean energy now. The deception, which could very well be legal, is used because it works, but is it the right or ethical thing to do?

Unfortunately, until consumers fight back, these deceptive tactics and lack of concern about customer service will likely continue.