Friday, July 24, 2015

Do’s and Don’ts in Presenting Data for Consumer Engagement

By Patty Durand, Executive Director, SGCC

Since the term ratepayers has morphed into consumers in the electric utility world, utilities and their partners have explored how to engage them. The prevailing model, backed by research, suggests that giving consumers timely, detailed information on their energy use will raise their awareness, sometimes inspire their engagement and promote their program participation. The win-win outcomes include more efficient, cost-effective and more environmentally sustainable utilities, and more satisfied consumers.

In an era when utility business models are threatened by nimble, digitally and consumer-savvy third parties, discovering best practices in consumer engagement has taken on added urgency. One important element in this effort is to figure out the most effective practices in presenting consumer usage data and other utility-consumer communications to consumers.

Thus the title and focus of our most recent webinar, “Consumer Engagement with Data Presentment,” which featured three experienced practitioners and their lessons learned. Also - please pass the word that SGCC webinars are now open to anyone, not just our membership, and join us for our next webinar on August 26 “The Right to Data Access.”

I’ll select a few highlights from each of our three presenters, each of whom come to the topic from a unique perspective. Their findings and observations really fell into a set of do’s and don’ts. A few insights on what works and what doesn’t may well influence your thinking on consumer engagement best practices.

Becky Williamson, strategic marketing coordinator for Memphis Light, Gas & Water, noted that her distribution utility offers electricity at below the national average cost and MLG&W’s customers have some of the highest per capita electricity consumption. This is in part driven by widespread use of electric heating among local households. MLG&W’s goals include raising consumer awareness of their consumption and lowering their usage and bills, automating customer service including payments, promoting utility programs, and raising customer satisfaction – the whole enchilada. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is the source of the utility’s consumer data.

MLG&W’s findings are that a pilot program that relied on in-home displays using the Zigbee protocol experienced too many interface glitches which led MLG&W to expand its online portal – “My Account Dashboard” – for consumer data delivery. The dashboard presents data in many ways and at various depths. “Customers can choose how deeply they want to dig into their data,” Becky said. One related issue for the utility/presenter of data is the degree of data granularity. MLG&W offers electricity consumption data in various formats, from month-to-date to 15-minute intervals.

Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street, Inc., presented a dozen data-driven insights gleaned from field trials in 1,200 homes in 11 states equipped with data acquisition devices. You’ll remember that Pecan Street is a neighborhood in Austin, Texas, outfitted as a virtual lab for testing energy-related technologies and behaviors. A handful of McCracken’s points that caught my ear may be of service to readers shaping their own consumer data presentment programs.  

All broadband- or cellular-based data presentment strategies are prone to frequent, although brief interruptions, McCracken said. The implication is that data-caching abilities are needed on the measuring device itself to avoid loss of data.

More than 80 percent of discretionary electricity use in peak hours is spent on air conditioning, according to McCracken’s data. The implication is that comfort is very important to consumers. And pricing trials to change that behavior made little difference, he reported. My thought here is that perhaps other strategies will prove useful in load shaping for summer afternoons.

McCracken also reported that seasonal variation is prominent in HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) use generally, versus other appliances, which typically are low consumers of electricity but are always on. And HVAC-driven usage spikes are most prominent among residential consumers.

“Residential AC is the biggest thing to focus on,” McCracken said, referring to energy efficiency or demand response programs.

Mimi Zhang, product manager for Silver Spring Networks, confirmed some critical connections from a vendor’s point of view. Silver Spring Networks is a networking company with a consumer focus.

“A consumer engagement focus is critical to grid modernization,” Zhang said. “Engaged consumers are important to [utility] program participation and customer satisfaction.” And she added that consumer engagement requires data.

Zhang suggested that utilities installing AMI should immediately offer programs with value for consumers to connect the costs they inevitably pay with the value they expect in return. For instance, she pointed to Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which did just this and saw customer satisfaction spike as a result.

The drivers in effective data presentment, according to Zhang: maintain consumer interest in online portals by, for instance, embedding a customer’s month-to-date usage and charges on the opening home page; limit their efforts by making presentment clear and simple; and tackle the mobile device first to reach more consumers.

The principles outlined by our presenters suggest that best practices in consumer engagement and its corollary, data presentment, are maturing. And it looks like the ecosystem of research to inform utilities and their partners already has achieved results. That’s good news for everyone in the business of consumer engagement.