Meralco: From just a utility to tech-savvy, transparent, empowering partner of people

In Photo: Alfredo S. Panlilio, SVP and head of customer retail services and corporate communications at Meralco

COMMUNICATION in the power industry used to be a restricted discipline in the Philippines, with the generation and transmission sectors controlled by government, and the distribution in the hands of companies with legislative franchise monopoly.

But with deregulation in generation and other reforms in the past decade spurring a takeoff in the electricity market even as rapid advancements in technology took place, communication has proven to be crucial in reaching out to millions of electricity users in a timely and coherent fashion.

Meralco made a historic win at the Philippine Quill Awards with its 3-peat Company of the Year award—a first in the awards show’s 16-year history. Customer-centric programs from across corporate functions contributed to the company’s 14 Excellence and 13 Merit Awards.

For Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP)-led company Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), communication became the catalyst to set in motion its customer-centric thrust. It was, however, no easy journey, and one that was – and still is – fraught with challenges.

Given its reputation as the Philippines’ biggest electricity distribution utility, the listed firm has had its fair share of criticism, especially since electricity is not only considered a consumer good, but also a political product. That said, generation and distribution of such requires a smooth, fast and reliable process at all times. Otherwise, expect a public outcry as soon as the first hitch happens.

“It’s a high-profile political company,” Alfredo S. Panlilio, SVP and head of customer retail services and corporate communications at Meralco, told the BusinessMirror. “It’s so political externally that, for whatever reason, one can just take an issue against us to their benefit.”

Unfazed by criticism, however, the esteemed organization relentlessly addressed every concern that has come its way and eventually regained the people’s trust after each crisis. Thanks to the power of words, either spoken or written, it has successfully brought the right message across its target market, or the consuming public as a whole, in so far as its public relations and communication strategies are concerned.

Proof of this: Meralco’s consistent triumph in the Philippine Quill Awards, where, at the just concluded 16th edition of the awards, it bagged anew the Company of the Year accolade. The utility firm has won this citation four times since 2012.

“Winning awards like Quill is such a privilege,” Panlilio said of their four-peat record since the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Philippines introduced it as a special category in this most prestigious annual awards program in the field of business communication.

As in previous Quill editions, Meralco brought home again the most number of awards this year among the participating companies: 14 Excellence and 13 Merit trophies, or a total of 27 campaign awards, for different corporate functions—public information, internal communication, local government affairs and special projects, safety communication, sports and youth advocacy, corporate technology and transformation, investor relations, marketing, corporate social responsibility, and networks. The company’s payment subsidiary, Bayad Center, also contributed to the collection.

Secrets of success

SIX years ago, when Meralco was given the highest distinction by the IABC, naysayers took it only as a “beginner’s luck”. But when the company bagged it anew in 2016 and retained it up to the present—a pioneering accomplishment in the Quill Awards’ 16-year history—everyone now agrees that it truly is a force in the PR and communication fields to reckon with.

“It’s really an honor and privilege to win this award for three straight years,” Panlilio exclaimed as he sat down with BusinessMirror recently for an interview.

Pressed if ever they keep a “magic formula” to success, he stressed that it’s neither sheer luck nor any charm or amulet that accounts for their supremacy

“I don’t know whether it’s a secret, but it really boils down to focusing on who is the reason for our being. And the reason for our being is really our customers,” he declared. “Our objective really is to put programs in place that help our customers.”

The power utility firm’s successive wins, according to him, also serve as a validation of their hard work and dedication to strengthen their business communication excellence.

Well-informed customers

To better serve every Juan with the right information, particularly on the movement of electricity rates, for instance, Meralco has issued advisories on a regular-basis since 2013.

“It was due to the fact that we just want to communicate and be more transparent publicly,” the top executive explained.

Panlilio admitted that they are involved in a very complicated industry, wherein the consumers are not privy to the generation, transmission and distribution components that contribute to the amount of power consumption. He explained that for every peso that they have billed over the last eight years, only 16 percent to 18 percent of the total due would actually go to Meralco.

“The rest are pass-through charges,” Panlilio said. “In the past three years, our distribution rates have not moved at all. But generation charges go up and down. That’s why we basically communicate to the public what is the reason for the changes. Also, half of it is explaining the rates; the second half is what tips can we give to the public.”

In partnership with the Department of Energy, Meralco has also led in educating consumers on the cost of operating their appliances on a per-hour or per-day basis through the Orange Tag campaign.

Intelligent tech for convenience, savings

IN this day and age, technology has a pivotal role in how enterprises do business. Cognizant of this, Meralco embraces technological advancements not only to revolutionize the organization, but the entire energy sector as well.

“Technology also plays a huge role in our business,” Panlilio said. “When I came here, our chairman also pushed for technology innovation, aside from communication. We are looking at initiatives where we can really bring better service to the marketplace.”

Launched in 2013, the company introduced smart metering. Initially coming in the form of prepaid electricity, otherwise known as “Kuryente Load”, this is patterned after that of the telco industry, which allows customers to buy a load of electricity within their means, anytime and anywhere.

Proven effective in energy conservation, this solution also empowers Meralco customers, providing users with regular updates on their consumed amount via their mobile phones. This, in a way, teaches them how to utilize energy wisely and, at the same time, eliminates the so-called “bill shock” often associated with postpaid services.

“So imagine the benefit that they are getting from just understanding consumption; [it] is so great that their savings on a monthly basis is from 15 percent to 18 percent because they know their actual consumption on a daily basis,” said Panlilio.

To date, Meralco has installed about 100,000 smart meters nationwide; and 140,000 applications have been approved. Even though these are a fraction of the company’s total accounts of 6.5 million —of which 91 percent or 5.9 million are mass market residential customers—Panlilio is confident that they will hit the 3.3 million smart meters target by 2024 as part of their long-term smart grid roadmap.

“Kuryente Load is just one product of smart metering. It can also be for postpaid,” he said of its future application across their franchise area. “We’re looking at a smartphone application, wherein you’ll know the consumption per appliance. So we can give you analytics on the major contributors to your usage, which we hope will change your utilization for the better.”

Meralco also keeps on advancing its distribution management systems to provide  better service to customers. Through this project, which also forms part of its smart grid plan, the utility firm integrates “smart intelligence” into its distribution network to better manage the electricity consumption of its clients.

Improved customer experience

NEW digital solutions have given today’s consumers unprecedented access to information about products and services, thus, giving them more choices.

With this in mind, businesses now look for ways to better respond to and satisfy the evolving market requirements. Addressing the needs of the consuming public, therefore, is always a top priority for Meralco.

“We’re embarking on a customer experience transformation program, wherein we’re going to digital platforms for customer service,” Panlilio said.

The company is set to launch its customer experience engine (CXE), an undertaking that was conceived after the firm conducted a survey on the four pain points of consumers: Application process, payments, restoration, and feedback.

“So based on those pain points, we created a platform where you can now apply online or via your smartphone. Your bill can be presented online and you can also pay online. You can also advise us of any outage,” he noted. “In the future, hopefully, we will have chatbots answering your queries.”

Cost-efficient strategies

BY and large, successful PR and communication strategies require a huge investment. This, however, is not the case for a multi-awarded organization like Meralco.

When it comes to their advertising budget, Panlilio estimated that it’s even less than half of the allocation of most companies similar to their size.

“Of course we still do the traditional media—the radio, television and print,” he said, without citing the exact amount of their ad expenditures. “But it’s very small because we’re regulated.”

Accessibility and accountability, according to him, make a big difference. He cited his team’s availability to the press whenever an issue concerning the interest of their customers and stakeholders needs to be addressed.

“If there’s a problem, we don’t hide from the media,” he said, citing Meralco AVP for Public Information Joe R. Zaldarriaga as the company’s spokesperson to the media. “I told him that we need to be more aggressive to really communicate more. With one issue, it’s so easy to blame us.”

Customer satisfaction index

That mindset, eventually, changed the reputation and image of Meralco as a brand. Proof of which is the company’s latest record-breaking rating in the Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI), which measures its fulfillment of client expectations on its service process and offerings.

“We have an all-time high in the last three years,” Panlilio said of their improved CSI performance, which used to be on a range of 6 and 7 points. “Over the last month, it’s 8.2 out of a scale of 10.”

The good relation they have established with the local press is reflected in the extensive trimedia mileage, mostly positive reports on the company, as compared to their ad placements.

“We’re very serious also in creating a very transparent annual report because we want to make sure that we’re accountable for our numbers and, at the same time, transparent to the public [about] what we’re into,” added the top executive.

Social media

Another factor that enables Meralco to sustain the top Quill citation is its maximized use of social media.

Five years ago, he recalled their team’s plan on how to expand their presence in Facebook (FB) and Twitter. “I’m glad we decided to go ahead because initially there were some negative comments and tweets, but we were able to answer them directly and they were able to get feedback. It became a positive engagement, rather than negative.”

At present, Meralco’s followers on Twitter and FB have reached 2.2 million and 550,000, respectively. Given this, analytics think tank Socialbakers has recognized the company as among the top utility firms involved in these platforms.

“These are the things that we’re exploring to reach out to our customers via their computer or smartphone,” Panlilio stressed.

Effective communication amid business disruption

SEEING the advent of manifold technological breakthroughs in the enterprise world at present, the power giant, like any established business in the country, is still vulnerable to these changes, as acknowledged by Meralco’s senior executive.

“That’s why as early as now, we’re looking at how we can future-proof Meralco,” Panlilio said, in anticipation of the emergence of the so-called “prosumers” (producers and consumers) as renewable energy adoption in the domestic market is seen to accelerate soon.

Proactively, the utility firm has already established Spectrum, a new subsidiary focusing on solar power. What’s more, it has formed an entity that deals with electric-vehicle (EV) operation.

“That’s a future business model, I think, that will also help Meralco aside from the charging [of EVs],” Panlilio said, while disclosing their recent filing with the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board of an application for a route, either for an e-tricycle or e-jeep, from Mandaluyong City Hall to Buendia LRT station.

These and other “green” initiatives have not only spoken highly of Meralco’s responsible corporate citizenship, they also brought it many excellence awards.

“So those are the major threats that we ourselves are trying to disrupt ourselves,” he said. “Many of the wins we have were actually disruptive communication.”

Maverick leader

BEYOND innovative programs in place, Meralco’s winning streak in the Quill Awards in recent years may also be attributed to the man behind its sterling PR and communication campaigns.

A CEO Excel awardee of IABC way back in 2013, Panlilio’s professionalism and expertise have enabled him to turn around the company’s image and improve its relationship with the public. No wonder he’s considered an industry trailblazer both by his coworkers and contemporaries in the field.

“As a leader, he inspires all of us,” Zaldarriaga said of Panlilio. “He brings the best in each and everyone of us, which resulted in Meralco getting the three-peat Company of the Year award.”

The SVP and head of customer retail services and corporate communications moved to Meralco from its affiliate telco provider in 2010, initially, with a goal to improve the entity’s business. As a result of this, the company posted a year-to-date growth of 6.2 percent in energy sales on the back of strong market demand for electricity.

“I went into customer segmentation,” he said of his course of action that helped the firm bolster its financial performance and understand better its target markets, such as corporate partners, BIZ clients (small and medium enterprises) and residential patrons.

“And then we wanted to energize earlier because the more we energize, the [better] for us. Any delay affects business,” he added, while referring to Meralco’s improved customer base—rising by about 4.8 percent from 3.5 percent eight years ago.

Taking a cue from the company’s previously challenged image, Panlilio’s second objective was to appease the negative public notion of the firm, saying that he wanted to “make it appear softer and kinder.”

“Whenever they see this iconic building in Ortigas, they probably wonder if there are actually people there. In other words, if the firm has a heart,” he emphasized.

Malasakit is among our corporate values. So everybody here works hard. Everybody here wants to satisfy the customers.”

Asked for advice to PR and communication practitioners, Panlilio’s suggestion was short and simple: tell the truth, be honest and transparent about whatever challenge one’s organization is faced with.

“It’s really just being truthful to the public and accountable. If you commit a mistake, say that you made a mistake. You have to be very proactive on issues because that’s the only way the people can see what you’re doing and, hopefully, their view of your company will change,” he said.

Keep the ball rolling

INCEPTED in 1903, Meralco has remained the country’s largest private sector electric distribution utility company, serving 36 cities and 75 municipalities, including Metro Manila. Its franchise area spans 9,685 square kilometers, covering the core of the nation’s industrial, commercial and population centers.

Even if it’s viewed as an unchallenged monopoly that no longer requires any publicity stunt to maintain its staying power and relevance to the market, there’s still no stopping the 115-year-old homegrown power firm from communicating constantly with the consuming public, shareholders and stakeholders.

“That’s not in our mindset. Our mindset is really customer-focused,” said Panlilio, who is also a sports executive and a head honcho of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas and the MVP Sports Foundation.

Despite the company’s continuous success in the Quill Awards under his leadership, the former athlete vowed to sustain it in the coming years.

“We appreciate the awards, but it will not make us lax or complacent because a lot of work was done to achieve that. We will continue to have to work harder not because we want to win another award, but I think, again, for our customers to see what we’re trying to do to serve them better,” he said.

“I hope they see us or they trust us as their partners. We want to become their end-to-end energy solutions provider. Truly, ‘may liwanag ang buhay, ang negosyo, ang bukas’ [There is light in life, the business, and the future],” Panlilio concluded.

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Roderick L. Abad graduated from Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, with a degree course in Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication. He has 12 years of journalism experience, starting as a Special Features Writer in a major daily newspaper. In 2006, he moved to the BusinessMirror in the same capacity and, eventually, became a beat reporter. To his credit, he was a finalist in the 2011 Holcim Journalism Awards for Sustainable Construction and the 2013 Lasallian Scholarum Awards. He remains affiliated with the BusinessMirror as a contributor.

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