Like most companies in its industry, Xcel Energy Inc. had long relied on traditional customer satisfaction surveys to benchmark its performance against other utilities. Gail Boudreaux, who joined the board in 2012, had another idea—one that would help better position Xcel for the future.
At the time, Boudreaux was CEO of UnitedHealthcare, the insurance unit of UnitedHealth Group Inc. She and her team at UHC had used net promoter evaluation surveys to help gauge customer loyalty; this style of surveying asks respondents how likely they are to recommend a company to others. Net promoter evaluation surveys are designed to help companies respond quickly—marketing to loyal customers or following up with unhappy ones. “Net promoter scores force you to dig deeper into the data,” says Boudreaux, “and also think about how all of the pieces fit together.”
Boudreaux thought that such surveys also could be effective tools for Xcel. That might seem like a hard sell for the board of a utility that operates as a regulated monopoly in most states. Boudreaux’s argument: Utilities need to prepare for the time when consumers have more choice in where they obtain their energy. Net promoter evaluations, she believes, are one of the most effective ways to understand customers.
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Xcel Chairman and CEO Ben Fowke was sold. “Gail has been a tremendous advocate in benchmarking against consumer-driven industries,” he says. “She really pushed us to adopt the net promoter score. Very few utilities use that today. In the long term, it will position us better to view things in the eyes of customers and be more customer-focused than we have been before.”
Xcel adopted net promoter last year. Fowke believes that the company is receiving more data-driven feedback from customers—information that helps it make decisions about investments, marketing and other aspects of its business. As Xcel works to become more customer-focused, the net promoter surveys will give a clearer view of how well it is managing and building customer relationships.
In making the case for the surveys, Boudreaux tapped her 30-plus years in health care and insurance—both health care and utilities have their rates set at the state and federal level. Then there’s the issue of choice. The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) broadened consumer choice for health insurance. Utilities also are facing the challenge of choice. Businesses and individual consumers want access to green energy, such as rooftop solar, which appeals to both customer groups. Boudreaux’s experience steering United through the ACA’s launch gave her insights that can apply to a regulated industry managing similar changes in customer choice and preferences.
Fowke also appreciates Boudreaux’s knowledge of finance and operations. When executives present performance data, he counts on her to ask how the results benchmark against other companies. Fowke also relies on Boudreaux’s frank conversations about challenges or business issues: “She will give me candid feedback and unfiltered advice,” he says.
In 2014 Boudreaux founded GKB Global Health, a health care strategy and consulting firm, based in Illinois, where she now lives. She continues to serve on Xcel’s governance, compensation, and nominating committee; she also chairs its operations, nuclear, environment and safety committee.
In her corporate, consulting and director roles, Boudreaux strives to engage with companies that do meaningful work, and she curates that thread through her career. “All of the companies are in industries that make a difference,” she says. “The health care companies are very impactful, and Xcel is a critical [company] in the states they serve.” —Suzy Frisch