Monday, April 6, 2015

Opportunity knocks: Engaging utility customers to drive satisfaction

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, SGCC

Our recent SGCC webinar focused on our latest research report, “Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation Study – Wave 5” and I will share a few highlights here because SGCC’s research has matured beyond theory to being directly applicable to the power industry’s interest in customer engagement.

The study’s mundane title disguises its significance as you will in this summary. And in articulating these research findings, I will highlight the expertise of three knowledgeable people who presented on our webinar. Jack Lloyd now serves as coordinator for SGCC Research. Jack retired as vice president of Market Strategies International last year and brings a career of consumer research to us. Gomathi Sadhasivan chairs the SGCC Research Committee and works as a senior consultant at DNV GL. Mike McMahan is vice president for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), based in Chicago, which is providing solid information to its customers on smart meter benefits.

Jack and Gomathi opened the webinar by providing insight on the statistical integrity of the Wave 5 study as well as its key findings; Mike McMahan added real-world insights into ComEd’s high-touch approach to its ongoing AMI deployment.

As presented by Jack and Gomathi, The Consumer Pulse study provides a segmentation framework designed to better understand U.S. consumers according to their values and attitudes about energy. The report’s data identifies five consumer segments:

  1. Green Champions (30%) demonstrate the strongest interest in new utility services and smart energy programs. They are early technology adopters, the youngest segment and the most environmentally-conscious. “Smart energy technologies fit our environmentally aware, high-tech lifestyles,” they might say.
  2. Savings Seekers (20%) have low satisfaction with current utility provider, and want a choice. Awareness and favorability toward smart grid and smart meters are low; however, the segment views smart grid benefits as important. They might say “How can smart energy programs help us save money?”
  3. Status Quo (18%) have a lower interest in smart energy programs than any of the other segments. The segment is relatively older, where comfort and ease are more important than conservation. They are likely to say, “We’re okay; you can leave us alone.”
  4. Technology Cautious (17%) are more knowledgeable about smart grid programs, but have little interest in participating in them. They might say “We want to use energy wisely, but we don’t see how technologies can help.”
  5. Movers and Shakers (15%) are the highest income segment and smart grid awareness and favorability are high, but utility satisfaction is low. They are thinking, “Impress us with smart energy technology and maybe we will start to like the utility more.”

Of course, each segment has numerous attributes that further define it, and there can be overlap between segments. Real people can inhabit several categories and every utility is likely to have a different percentage mix of these segments. Nonetheless, understanding each segment can lead to effective  messaging about smart energy programs and services that engage customers and leads to customer satisfaction.

During the webinar, Jack Lloyd noted that none of the five consumer segments are dominant, yet none are niche. Some clearly are more open to being approached than others. Green Champions, for instance, exhibit strong interest in smart energy programs, are likely early technology adopters and exhibit average satisfaction with their utility. Opportunity! This is true, each in its own way, of all five segments.

Gomathi pointed out that Wave 5 research and SGCC’s segmentation framework, combined with a local utility’s load shape data, can yield priorities for both program design and messaging. For example, consumers in the top quartile of energy usage are prime candidates for savings if they address peak time use.

Mike McMahan added that, at ComEd’s scale – it is installing 25,000 smart meters per week – its high-touch program of customer engagement is already complex. Adding segmentation would introduce practical difficulties. The opportunity here is for after the fact segmentation to come in when the utility is ready to introduce new programs and services that increased data and communications equipment will allow, increasing customer satisfaction in those investments.

SGCC’s customer segmentation framework, for the first time, provides a low cost tool to our members  with which a utility or third-party can mash-up individual energy consumption data to further refine consumer messaging - or even develop smart energy programs that benefit both utility and customer. Please contact me for more details about that.  

Our research also shows that most consumers still are not familiar or knowledgeable about smart energy, yet their interest is high. The benefits of Smart Grid, when described, have broad consumer appeal that can be leveraged to build trust in the messenger. Innovative pricing programs draw high interest and our report explains which pricing programs are most popular and why. Critical peak rebates draw a whopping 60 percent of potential participants.

Disappointingly, consumer knowledge hasn’t grown significantly over the past four years we’ve conducted our consumer research, though negative attitudes have increased slightly.

Consumers are interested and want to hear more about smart energy, and our segmentation studies provide the basis for targeted messaging. Some utilities have pursued this opportunity while others are waiting. Meanwhile, fear mongering about smart energy technology has somewhat bolstered negative attitudes. That leaves an open door for utilities and their partners to communicate the consumer value proposition to their customers and provide meaningful insights to them about the value and benefits to them for grid modernization. Access to data, variable pricing programs, and programs and services that consumers will find value in will engage consumers in positive, value-enhancing ways.

The bottom line here is that consumers are open to learning more about the benefits of smart energy practices and programs and, if engaged, are likely to participate. Utilities and their partners can take this research and make new opportunities to drive customer satisfaction through programs, services, and messages that appeal to consumers in the areas they care about. To learn more and access the Consumer Pulse study findings, visit