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.

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