Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Smart Grid Customer Engagement Success Stories

By Patty Durand

Last week’s webinar on our new report, “Smart Grid Customer Engagement Success Stories,” illuminated numerous principles and practices that any utility can implement.

(The report is
available without charge to SGCC members and at a nominal fee to non-members.)

Joining me on the call were Pat Charles, Smart Grid Customer Solutions Manager at San Diego Gas & Electric, and Bill Bell, Technology Director, Analytics & Data Services, at CenterPoint Energy. Both utilities are featured in our report.

Based on those utilities’ successful practices – as well as at Okahoma Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison – the SGCC developed seven principles that any utility can and should implement in its customer engagement programs.

I’d like to remind readers, particularly at utilities, that SGCC research has established that a broad swath of the American public – the “silent majority,” in my view – has a keen interest in their home energy practices and how they’re connected to the bigger world of utilities and their energy practices. Admittedly, not every utility customer is so motivated. But the so-called silent majority is large and diverse enough to provide a willing audience – a major opportunity – to utilities that make the effort to educate and engage them.

I happened to participate in the webinar from GreenTech Media’s Networked Grid conference outside Los Angeles, where I held another well-attended panel to spread the word. One participant there put the issue into perspective: “We’ll see more customer engagement in the next few years than we have over the past century.”

Our report describes seven (7) takeaways that bear mention here:
  • educate customers prior to technology deployments such as smart meters,
  • anticipate and answer their questions,
  • take your message to civic groups, schools, wherever people gather,
  • advise your customers on how to shift their usage to manage costs, if you’re implementing time-of-use rates,
  • make your Web portal user friendly and content rich,
  • provide in-home technology that can inform customers of their energy use,
  • gather customer testimonials and tell your own stories.

When these seven principles are coordinated into holistic programs, any utility can improve its customer engagement and satisfaction levels.

Our new “Success Stories” report is filled with how-to examples. For instance, CenterPoint trained 1,500 of its employees as ambassadors to their communities, able and willing to answer energy-related questions from their family, friends and community. Southern California Edison composed 68 Q&As in an FAQ format for its customers. Too much information? No, our research documents that you can do too little, but there’s no such thing as too much when it comes to helping your customers manage their energy use.

Pat Charles at SDG&E mentioned ideas such as the importance of building “community credibility.” SDG&E sent knowledgeable utility representatives into the field with meter installation crews to personally address questions and concerns. And he mentioned that holding energy-related contests broadens the audience for engagement.

Bill Bell at CenterPoint also cited contests, ambassadors and engaging civic groups. That’s remarkable, given that CenterPoint is a “poles and wires” company without a direct customer relationship, but with responsibility for smart metering. Of 2.2 million meters installed by CenterPoint last year, only 38 accounts refused a new meter, Bell told us. CenterPoint even performed a “Myth Buster” campaign that provided the hard facts to counter misinformation.

The upshot: we know what works and we’re offering a roadmap to implement effective practices. We’ll feature two more success stories in the near future.   

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Utilities and their customer engagements: five success stories

By Patty Durand, SGCC executive director

I’d like to call your attention to an important new report we’ll release this Wednesday, March 20, titled “Smart Grid Customer Engagement Success Stories.”

The great news today is that our team has documented four utilities that have pioneered customer engagement programs that really “move the needle” on a variety of issues that the industry has been discussing at length for some time.

And let’s be sure the context here is clear: the SGCC and other researchers have established a firm link between positive customer engagement and customer satisfaction. Regardless of a utility’s individual business model or roadmap for change in a suddenly hyper-dynamic industry, customer satisfaction, flowing from engagement, has to remain a primary focus.

We’ll provide an in-depth look at the report’s findings in a webinar at 4 p.m. EDT; you can
register for the event here. (SGCC members may register at no charge; we ask non-members to pay a nominal fee.) Following the webinar, the report will be posted on the SGCC website for public access.

The benefit of the webinar, which I will moderate, is that we’ll hear firsthand from two of the four utilities documented in the SGCC’s new report. CenterPoint Energy’s William “Bill” Bell, technology director of analytics and data services, and San Diego Gas & Electric’s Pat Charles, who serves SDG&E as customer solutions manager, will share their utilities’ experiences, insights and strategic perspectives on how they connected with customers before, during and after their smart meter deployments. In the webinar you’ll hear details on each utility’s campaign, how it was constructed and deployed and other practical facts and ideas.

The other two success stories in the forthcoming report belong to Oklahoma Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison and their experiences and perspectives are detailed as well. All four utilities, as well as a few dozen others, really are at the forefront of a transformation in how they treat the vital link to their customers.

It is important to point out that the SGCC team used four criteria to assess and select these four utilities from among thousands nationwide.

First, we determined that we’d showcase only those utilities that have deployed their programs across their service territory; pilot programs would be excluded. Second, the utility had to be willing and able to share details of their work, at least to the degree that they offered lessons learned, allowing others to replicate their approach. Third, we required candidate utilities to document and share actual customer testimonials, rather than offer “marketing-speak” on how much customers just loved the program. Finally, we required evidence that a strategic engagement process was enabled by outreach, education and customer involvement.

In short, we set the bar high and maintained rigorous standards for this research, including customer-oriented metrics, to document what these four utilities have accomplished. The results will be discussed in Wednesday’s webcast and full explicated in the written report that follows. The SGCC currently is discussing how to document other success stories as other utilities that have done exemplary work meet our four criteria. (We identified at least a score of utilities that appeared close to meeting our eligibility requirements.)

A few words on the report itself. From the four success stories, the SGCC team has identified and articulated seven core ingredients for successful, smart grid-related customer engagement. I’ll call out just two here; for context and completeness I encourage you to read the brief, 20-page report, which provides an executive summary, 10 pages of SGCC findings and 10 pages devoted to the four individual case studies.

In cases where a utility offered dynamic rates to its customers, our successful utilities also communicated to their customers simple, practical means on how best to shift their usage to off-peak hours. And where many utilities struggle with user-friendly Web portals for sharing account holders’ energy use data and related information, our successful utilities made their portals fun and informative to increase engagement.

To my mind, the surprise in this exercise was that there were few surprises. Most if not all of the exemplary programs and activities we document in this new report have been widely discussed over the past few years. Yet now we have documented that, in fact, a diverse but select set of practices indeed work effectively.

My headline promised five success stories. Well, in my view, these four case studies create the fifth success story: despite widespread chatter that power utilities are slow or resistant to change, the new SGCC report documents that a number of utilities are spear-heading positive change with meaningful results for customer engagement and satisfaction. Please join us for the webinar and read and share the new report with your colleagues. I believe it describes a path forward that’s of wide and beneficial use in the industry.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On the road: dispelling myths about the consumer

By Patty Durand

In this inaugural blog post, I’d like to declare two modest victories in the SGCC’s effort to get the word out on its work and the potential impact on consumers and utilities. 

In late February, I moderated one panel and contributed to another at the 4th annual IEEE Power & Energy Society’s conference on Innovative Smart Grid Technologies in Washington, D.C. And in late January, I led a presentation on the SGCC’s “2013 State of the Consumer” report at DistribuTECH, the power industry’s largest tradeshow, in San Diego.

In both cases, the SGCC’s findings were presented to a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Everyone at these events can be considered a consumer, of course; we also connected with utilities, technology vendors, regulators, academicians and journalists. In short, the SGCC is reaching the audiences that would most benefit from our research.

Simply being invited to moderate a panel on “Customer-Driven Smart Grid Performance Metrics” at the recent IEEE PES ISGT conference in Washington (and speaking on a second panel titled “Smart Grid Customer Education and Awareness”) shows that the power industry understands that technology exists to serve people.

Presenting SGCC research findings in various settings also keeps the conversation focused on the attitudes and perceptions of real consumers as measured by surveys, which serves to dispel persistent myths and misperceptions. In coming weeks, I’ll also have the opportunity to address GreenTech Media’s Networked Grid conference on March 21 and the Smart Grid Road Show on April 2.

In my recent presentations I found strong interest in four basic SGCC findings that cannot be repeated too often.

First, while it’s true that about half the U.S. population has only a vague notion of what “smart grid” means, we know from SGCC research that the more consumers know about the benefits of grid modernization, they more they like what they hear.

Second, my audiences often are hearing for the first time that customer segmentation by values and attitudes provides better insights for engagement than traditional demographics that rely on age, income, gender, etc.

Third, we are helping dispel the myth that consumers are only interested in the cheapest electricity to just keep the lights on. SGCC customer segmentation studies have found that significant numbers of consumers are motivated by environmental concerns, others by an interest in early adoption of energy management technologies, yet others are attracted by simple solutions and, yes, some are motivated by cost only or wish to be left alone.

Fourth, consumers like to feel empowered and they want choices. The notion that everyone just wants traditional, flat rates is false. When dynamic pricing is explained to consumers, SGCC research shows they are willing to try it; their motivations, of course, vary. 

Despite these promising findings about American consumers, I felt obligated to tell my audiences that if roughly half the U.S. population has not heard of the term “smart grid” or “smart meter,” then we as an industry (or a movement, if you will), face “heavy lifting” to raise awareness.

One of my fellow panelists at the IEEE PES ISGT, Caroline Winn, with San Diego Gas & Electric, provided grounds for optimism as she described her utility’s efforts to engage customers. SDG&E is combining customer segmentation with traditional demographics to understand their end users. The utility is moving customer service representatives into the role of “trusted advisors.” And its new mantra is to “get the right information to the right customer through the right channel at the right time.” SDG&E is introducing energy-related games into middle schools, initiating a new generation to the twin notions of efficiency and wise use. And SDG&E will soon offer customers “smart pricing plans” along with a year of their usage history to guide them to the plan that best suits them. A customer rewards program is in place.

In short, the SGCC’s research is slowly but surely replacing tired clichés and persistent myths about American consumers and their relationship to electric energy. I’ll bring you more insights from my public presentations and commentary on news events and market trends in future blogs. Stay tuned! (But turn your computer off when not in use…)