Mike Lowe is jazzed up about offering great service. He lives for his customers. But he’s not running a local trattoria or hardware store -- he’s managing customer services for an electric utility with nearly one million customers.

In 11 of the past 12 years, Salt River Project has received the highest rating from J.D. Power and Associates for customer satisfaction among large utilities in the Western U.S. For five of those years, the Phoenix-area utility was ranked highest in the nation. It’s not hard to see why when you talk to Lowe. He speaks of the passion for service that starts at the top of the organization and drives every new product that is offered.

There are no protests about smart meters in the Phoenix area despite the current rollout. The debacles that have plagued smart meter projects at Pacific Gas & Electric or Oncor are unheard of. While large utilities are hiring Chief Customer Officers to rethink how to treat the people at the other end of the meter, SRP has consumer wellbeing woven into its DNA. That ingrained knowledge is helping the utility lead the charge on implementations that many other utilities are only piloting, while also offering lessons about where the utility industry needs to move if it’s going to get anywhere.

“I crafted a vision for customer services about 13 years ago to make it rewarding, easy and pleasant to do business with us,” said Lowe. That trifecta is one that is repeated throughout the company: rewarding, easy and pleasant. It is not one you hear often in conjunction with utilities.

The rankings by J.D. Power and Associates are based on six criteria: customer service, power quality and reliability, communications, billing and payment, and corporate citizenship. Not only did it score the highest in its region on power quality and reliability, something that most utilities focus on, but it was also highest in every other category except price, where Sacramento Municipal Utility District took the cake.

For billing and payment, there is a web portal where consumers can see their daily usage. There are also various payment options. Customers can also sign up to get weekly bill estimates via text. All of this was implemented well ahead of the smart meter rollout. Just over a quarter of their customer base has accessed the website since its launch about a year ago. Interval data with more detail is coming soon.

Communications are also key for Lowe and his team. Using the website and traditional mailings, customers are contacted about two weeks before their smart meter will be installed with a variety of information and ways to ask follow-up questions. Communicating about power outages is also an important aspect to the ratings, and SRP is constantly trying to minimize the steps that a customer has to go through to get accurate information and achieve resolution. This would seem like a no-brainer for anyone who has ever been transferred around on any call center only to have no one be able to help, but it happens all the time in the utility space. Even the FERC commissioner claimed that he had to make multiple calls to his utility to get an issue resolved.  No wonder the case for smart grid is hard to make.

The good will from a little old fashioned communication means that SRP can roll out products other utilities are only dreaming of, like time-of-use pricing. There are two options to pick from and more people are signing up every day. As for the calls that bills will jump on TOU? “Our tariffs are designed so that the typical customer, without changing lifestyle, is going to have a similar bill,” said Lowe. “There’s an extremely high level of satisfaction.”

Not only is SRP successfully charging nearly 31 cents a kWh to 195,000 customers during Arizona summers and keeping happy customers, but it also has a huge pre-pay program that customers love. Even though their power could be cut off just days after running out of credit, about 112,000 Phoenix area residents are signed up, saving an average of 12 percent on their bills. Those that sign up love it, said Lowe. Every bill shows how much you have saved compared to being on the standard plan. If you’re not saving, it shows that too.

Lowe knows that there are skeptics out there who are leery of both TOU pricing and pre-paid programs, but he challenged any of the haters (like AARP) to talk to the customers who are using those programs. There are certainly plenty of sunbirds in Phoenix, and many of them enjoy TOU. He also doesn’t oversell the programs, either. “We have a philosophy that we’re here for the customer and we’ll recommend it if we think it will save them money,” he said.

The last piece of the puzzle is getting out into the world and being a part of the community you serve. While Chief Customer Officers at some utilities talk about “voice-of-the-customer research,” SRP is not buried in corporate speak. Instead it’s donating at a corporate level and giving back individually. Nearly 85 percent of employees participate in community service, many of them on community boards, according to Lowe. Employees donated more than $1.5 million in health and human services organizations in 2010 alone.

SRP is certainly not the only utility making a difference in its community. But it achieves all of the added value for customers to keep them coming back for more, whether it’s TOU pricing, demand response or energy efficiency programs. Most importantly, it did not overhaul customer care to sell ratepayers on smart grid; instead, customer service is the backbone that allows for grid updates and efficiencies. “Start out by loving your customers,” advised Lowe. “If you respect your customers, they will respect you.”