Monday, May 8, 2017

Utility Innovation and Customer Engagement Successes

The landscape for customer engagement for energy providers has changed quickly over the last few years. Younger generations with different sets of values are emerging as increasingly important target demographics. The proliferation of smartphones, social media and mobile apps is creating new channels where some customers expect interaction. And customers’ experiences with companies like Amazon, Verizon and Lyft are influencing these customers’ expectations for their relationship with their electric provider.

In this new world of evolving expectations and emerging innovation, members of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative have led the way in demonstrating how to effectively reach and engage consumers. Let's take a look at how three SGCC members have maximized customer engagement around residential solar, demand response/smart thermostats and microgrids, respectively.

Get on board the Solar Express in Snohomish County

Located just north of Seattle, Snohomish County is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. It's also notable for being home to one of the nation's most innovative municipal utilities.

Snohomish County Public Utilities District (SnoPUD), the second largest publicly owned utility in Washington, serves over 341,000 electric customers throughout a service territory that covers more than 2,200 square miles. Led by progressive leadership that has for years emphasized the importance of adapting to climate change, SnoPUD launched its Solar Express program back in 2009 to drive the adoption of rooftop solar.

To get the program off the ground, SnoPUD relied on several aspects, including cash incentives, local media outreach, community engagement and education.

For qualifying Solar Express customers, the utility initially offered up to $2,500 in cash incentives for residential customers that installed their solar system via a SnoPUD-approved solar contractor and had their installed system inspected by the utility. In addition to the upfront financial incentive, customers were also benefitted by positive Washington State policies and programs around net metering and residential renewable energy production.

The impetus of the Solar Express program was the high consumer demand in Snohomish County, and the utility capitalized on this interest to develop a robust community outreach program that included targeted letters, printed inserts, community meetings, solar fairs and solar home tours. Due to the high interest in the local market, it was easy to attract local media attention to the program, and over the years, cultivating social media discussion and word-of-mouth testimonials has been crucial for sustaining interest in the program.

SnoPUD also supported community-led, grassroots efforts to promote installations, whereby neighbors could get together, identify an ideal solar installer and obtain lower cost for multiple installations. Furthermore, the utility partnered with area schools and local businesses to install solar demonstration projects where the community could learn directly about solar energy.

Over the years, the Solar Express program has been a shining success. The first megawatt (MW) of solar was installed in three years, but the second MW came less than 18 months later. The third MW was added less than a year after that.

Today, the program is at nine MW of installed solar, and system costs are down significantly. While some of the financial incentives are going away after this summer, the utility will still offer an education and information program for customers interested in solar energy.

Demand response, BYOT and holiday promotions at CPS Energy

Down in San Antonio, Texas, another SGCC member, CPS Energy, has seen impressive growth and high customer satisfaction with its Bring Your Own Thermostat (BYOT) program.

With nearly 800,000 electric customers, CPS Energy is the largest municipal utility in the U.S. and is also a leader in encouraging energy efficiency and reduction in their community. Through the Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan, CPS Energy aims to reduce community demand for electricity by 771 MW by 2020 – roughly the same output of a small-ish power plant.

In addition to energy efficiency and solar, CPS Energy’s demand response program has been a key part of achieving this goal, and to effectively promote demand response to their customer base, CPS Energy developed a wide-ranging outreach and education program that included newsletters, paid advertisements, partner outreach emails, local TV spots, in-store promotions and much more.

The three main concepts driving their outreach were:

1) Create value for customers.
2) Meet customers where they are and when the best deals are available.
3) Eliminate cost barriers.

The program outreach also was strategically aligned with the holiday season, and in particular, Black Friday, a day when consumers are already expecting to spend to get significant deals from retailers. To increase adoption of their BYOT program, CPS Energy increased their smart thermostat rebate from $89 to $150, so customers could go out and buy a Nest thermostat for just $19 on Black Friday.

From year one, the program was a massive success. With a first year goal of 1,000 new customers, CPS Energy nearly doubled that figure. Thanks in part to helpful partners like The Home Depot who allowed CPS Energy to promote BYOT in store during the holidays, the program grew by 40 percent in six weeks.

And after the program was over, CPS Energy expected fewer enrollments; however, due to community awareness and word of mouth, post-event enrollments doubled.

In year two, CPS Energy offered the same financial incentives to consumers but pursued a different angle on marketing the program. Capitalizing on the heightened community awareness from the prior year, CPS Energy backed off some of the media spend but increased their presence on social media. Despite the drastically decreased marketing budget, CPS Energy added about 3,300 new customers, and the program became increasingly cost effective for them.

In the past two years, the San Antonio community has embraced CPS Energy’s BYOT program, as the program has quadrupled in that time. The BYOT program meets customers’ needs by allowing them to conveniently select their own device and save money, yet it remains the most cost-effective program CPS Energy’s demand response program.

Analyzing the results of community microgrid projects

Microgrid projects are being deployed at an increasing rate across the country, as they offer financial, resiliency and other benefits in many applications. SGCC member Energetics, a Columbia, Maryland-based management and engineering consulting firm, has extensive experience working with partners on microgrid projects.

While most of the microgrids that have been deployed are single-customer projects, like military bases, data centers, hospitals and universities, a major next step in this area is the development of community microgrids, which offer a more complicated set of requirements in the implementation and operation. With multiple customers, meters and even connection points with the grid, there's a higher level of coordination required in this emerging model that usually requires utility involvement from the beginning.

Prompted by the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the State of New York has been funding and conducting feasibility studies on the application of community microgrids that could restore power more quickly in the event of another superstorm or similar scenario. Over 80 projects were submitted in the first round for communities across the state, including Brooklyn, The Bronx, Syracuse and Yonkers, that were assessed for their technical feasibility, environmental suitability and also, importantly, the value proposition to the community.

Collectively, these 83 feasibility studies represent the world's largest body of literature on community microgrid design. Prior to this initiative by New York State, there was very little information globally on designing community microgrids and around the policy implications and the technical hurdles that need to be overcome.

After the initial studies were collected, Energetics was tasked with data mining the studies to determine best practices and lessons learned, especially around community involvement and customer concerns. In most of the communities, engagement in the process of designing a local microgrid was high, and community members came together as teams to determine the specific concerns of the community, most often environmental issues and the cost of residential customer electricity rates.

While microgrids, particularly multiple-customer microgrids, are still a burgeoning part of grid modernization, the New York State program has developed a solid base of information that other projects can utilize going forward.


To learn more about utility innovation and customer engagement successes, SGCC members and member prospects are invited to attend the 2017 Members Meeting & Fall Workshop in Austin, Texas on Sept. 13-14. The two-day event will feature sessions on the connected home, millennials, distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and more.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Examining the State of Today's Smart Grid Consumers

Earlier this year, SGCC published the "2017 State of the Consumer Report" to better understand consumer trends and preferences on smart grid-enabled products and services. This report utilized SGCC's 2016 research projects, industry trends in consumer engagement and six utility case studies to create a meta-analysis of how consumers have benefited from more utility outreach and advancements in grid modernization.

Here's a rundown of six things we learned about today's smart grid consumers:

It’s about consumer needs

The first finding is that consumer interest transcends technology. In “The Empowered Consumer”, we studied consumer awareness of and interest in nine different smart energy offerings. We partitioned the sample into states that could be considered advanced in respect to their smart grid implementation and those that could be considered the control (or not-as-advanced) states. We found that awareness and interest in the offerings were not significantly different among consumers in advanced or control states.

However, when we re-framed the data according to our segmentation framework, we learned that interest in technologies follows well-established consumer attitudes and values about energy. The conclusion is that consumer values drive interest, and policy and incentives boost adoption.

Effectively framing the benefits

The second takeaway is that marketing effectiveness (or how an offer is framed) is key to adoption. Consumers overwhelming want control and choice. In “Consumer Driven Technologies”, we asked consumers what kind of solar energy they would prefer, and over 80 percent indicated “residential solar”, because they see this as offering the most control over their system.

In “The Empowered Consumer”, a majority of consumers chose a time-of-use rate over a standard rate plan when offered variable options with different premium and discount levels, because they see this as offering them control while saving money. In the same study, we also learned that when awareness is high yet interest is low, carefully configured, personalized marketing programs targeting specific segments are most effective. However, when awareness is also low, a broad-based, multi-channel education campaign is called for around the financial, reliability and environmental benefits.

Balancing four elements of program design

The third key finding is that program design matters. Program design can be thought about as the interplay between four elements: the level of control that the consumer retains, what incentive they could realize by participating, the transaction burden (the amount of time and effort they need to invest to participate) and the amount of personal information they need to share. Both the incentives and burdens can be upfront and ongoing. Calibrating these four elements to the right proportion will determine marketing effectiveness.

In “The Empowered Consumer”, we presented consumers with a smart thermostat utility program and adjusted five elements – installation method, demand response (DR) enablement, incentive amount, incentive payment method and qualifying thermostat capabilities – to see which would result in the highest level of interest. The ideal configuration is a program with DIY installation, programmable weather adjustment capabilities, no DR capability and a $250 rebate. Nearly 70 percent of consumers expressed interest in this program. The art here is assessing the balance of give and take to maximize consumer interest and benefit.

Cost barriers are crucial

The fourth theme is that cost barriers are a major deal for consumers. This was demonstrated clearly in our “Consumer Driven Technologies” research; the top three barriers to solar adoption and the second-most cited barrier to EV adoption were all related to financial issues.

Looking at consumers that have already adopted solar, about 80 percent own their solar PV system, while a minority lease a solar PV system or have signed a solar power purchase agreement with a developer. However, if we look at those who have not yet adopted solar but are interested in doing so, there's a higher level of interest in non-ownership models.

This could be related to larger cultural trends as seen in the Sharing Economy. Companies like Lyft and Airbnb are causing consumers, especially Millennials, to re-think the necessity of ownership. Another major factor is the policy environment. While consumer interest is not significantly affected by policy environment, adoption is to some extent influenced by policy. If you're living in a state with support or incentives for solar and EVs, adoption will likely be higher in your state.

Consumer engagement is constant

The fifth finding is to remember the post-purchase engagement. Today's utilities have a number of touchpoints with consumers, some that are consumer initiated and others initiated by the energy provider, that are all opportunities to improve consumer engagement and satisfaction. Today's consumers are comparing the customer service of utilities to other industries, including banks, online retailers, health care providers and others, as we saw in our “Customer Experience & Expectations” research. Looking at problem remediation, consumers rated banks as the best providers of customer service by a significant margin; however, 44 percent of consumers placed utilities in their top three best customer service providers, second only to banks and 11 percentage points over online retailers.

While utilities are doing reasonably well in customer service, they could look to banks to see can what can be done next to further improve the customer experience. For example, banks have invested heavily in online and mobile banking and are, generally speaking, considerably farther ahead in offering easy-to-use mobile experiences to their customers. It’s these customer experiences with banks, online retailers and others that consumers have on their mind interacting with their own utility and weighing the customer service received.

Facing a consumer-oriented future

The final finding is that several recurring elements in SGCC research point to a changing business model for utilities. First, research suggests that energy consumers are willing to pay for products and services if they truly understand and value the programs. Consumers are interested in what electricity costs them and what it costs them to participate in programs that will save them energy and money; however, these consumer benefits need to be clearly communicated. In “The Empowered Consumer”, we found that over half of consumers are willing to pay for programs like energy concierge services, personalized savings suggestions via an app and automated heating and cooling services – a figure that may be surprising to some.

Second, there are several exciting things happening now in the energy ecosystem. Consumers show a clear propensity to look to their utility for trusted information, and utilities can take advantage of this by delivering information clearly in a personalized way. Partnerships are also going to be more important going forward since utilities may not have all of the expertise required to meet the needs of today’s consumers. Lastly, utilities should consider the policy environment and advocate for policies that get consumers over the hump toward adoption. Collectively, these trends point to a future where utilities can effectively meet the personalized needs of their evolving consumers.


Our next webinar, Customer Engagement Success Stories, will look at successful consumer engagement programs that incorporate many of the key themes discussed in the “2017 State of the Consumer Report”.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Taking a Look at the Present and Future of Mobile Engagement for Utility Customers

Mobile devices have become the center of many consumers' lives, especially in the increasingly important Millennial demographic, but to what extent have mobile solutions been adopted by electric utilities? And are consumers actually engaging in or interested in engaging in a mobile experience from their energy provider?

SGCC's Deputy Director Nathan Shannon led a webinar last month to look at how utilities are currently engaging consumers via mobile devices and their plans for the next few years. Joining Nathan on the presentation were speakers from utilities Xcel Energy and Duke Energy and solutions provider Bidgely.

To begin the webinar, Nathan asked attendees to complete a quick poll on whether their energy provider offered a mobile app and if yes, whether they regularly used it. The majority of respondents (60 percent) stated that their utility currently did not offer a mobile app, while only 27 percent indicated that their utility both offered an app and that they were currently using it. This quick, unscientific poll provided some context to the current state of the mobile landscape for utilities. Many utilities are currently not offering apps, or they're still in the early stages of development.

The first speaker on the webinar was Shawn Bielke, product portfolio manager for the customer experience group at Xcel Energy. Shawn's presentation focused on Xcel's guiding principles for mobile experience and the roadmap to development for the utility's yet-to-be-released mobile app.

In the development of their mobile app, Xcel has been guided by five customer-driven principles:

1.       Leverage customer data to offer a personalized experience.
2.       Provide actionable and relevant information.
3.       Enable data to be specific and have the ability to view and manipulate.
4.       Provide transparency into information available and Xcel's practices.
5.       Make it easy and enjoyable.

Prior to the development of Xcel's mobile app, the utility conducted extensive consumer research to identify the most important features. Xcel conducted focus groups, ethnographies and co-creation sessions and asked customers to show them what their ideal energy app would look like.

The first release of the Xcel Energy app will be in mid-May 2017 and will feature reporting an outage capability, an outage map, billing information, a bill pay option and more. The second version, planned for later in 2017, will feature more of the energy efficiency-related updates. Consumers will have access to their energy usage data, comparisons with their neighbors, energy tips and the ability to enroll in energy programs.

Looking out a few years, Xcel plans to continue to build out the app with new features to engage and inform customers. Based on Xcel's research, they have learned that energy usage is likely to be the key driver of engagement with an app. Xcel also wants to include more information about their efforts in renewable energy.

The second segment of the webinar featured Kelly Wyche, product developer with the Energy Innovation team at Duke Energy. Kelly works in a division at Duke Energy that develops innovative customer programs like energy efficiency, demand response, community-based renewable programs and other pilot programs that may eventually be rolled out to a larger set of customers.

One of the division's latest products has been a Smart Meter Usage App for Duke Energy customers that currently have a smart meter. The app provides customers with the opportunity to view, monitor and engage with their energy usage to make behavioral changes and, ultimately, save money.

In addition to the mobile app, this product also includes a hardware component. By using an Energy Bridge that connects to the customer's smart meter via radio technology, customers can actually view their energy usage in real time. Yet, even if customers do not opt to use the Energy Bridge, they can still see meter data from the previous day in 30-minute intervals on the mobile app.

In both instances, Duke believes the app adds additional consumer value for consumers that get a smart meter; however, Duke expects to see the highest levels of engagement from customers that experience connected home control with the Energy Bridge.

Duke Energy is also currently developing its Gateway app, an all-inclusive app that will have bill pay options, report-an-outage capability and additional features. The end goal for Duke is to eventually pull together the Smart Meter Usage App and the Gateway app to make one app that will have everything consumers want from their utility. Both programs will undergo pilot programs to fine-tune the technology and consumer experience. With the Smart Meter Usage App specifically, Duke Energy is launching a 10,000 customer pilot and planning for scalability over the next five years.

The final speaker on this webinar was Josh Gleason, head of product marketing at Bidgely, a software company that is transforming utility customer engagement by leveraging the power of energy data disaggregation.

Josh began his presentation with some important data on today’s consumers. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. consumers have a smartphone, but if you look at the 18-49 demographic, that number is closer to 90 percent. On top of that, digital screen time is increasingly skewing toward smartphone usage and away from desktops. These numbers suggest, as Josh argues, the growing reliance on the smartphone and that the mobile channel is becoming the preferred channel of contact for consumers.

Further, according to Navigant Research, utility executives view “customer expectations” as the second greatest disruptive force to their businesses over the next five years after “increased regulatory requirements”. If the mobile channel is going to play a major role in those customer expectations, then, according to Josh, the time is now for utilities to prepare their mobile strategy. However, at the same time, while utilities may understand on some level that they will need to develop a mobile strategy, utilities don’t currently feel confident in their ability to engage customers with a mobile app.

With all of these statistical inputs point to a gap in mobile solution awareness and readiness, Bidgely designed a playbook in 2016 that helps utilities evaluate the landscape of mobile solution. Josh discussed the five key points for utilities to consider when building out an app, including the required functionality, leveraging a platform approach and the build vs. buy decision.

Based on the context provided by Josh, it's clear that consumers are going to desire mobile solutions from their utilities in the near future. As utilities place a growing importance on consumer engagement and expectations moving forward, the mobile channel is going to play an increasingly important role in their efforts. Forward-thinking utilities like Xcel and Duke are already moving down the path toward delivering a consumer-friendly, multi-functional mobile solution for their customers.

Following the three speakers' presentations, a Q&A session was conducted. SGCC members can listen to that recording here. And don't forget to sign up for our next webinar, which will focus on key takeaways from the "2017 State of the Consumer Report".

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Three Things We Learned at 2017 Consumer Symposium

Over 130 attendees gathered last month in advance of DistribuTECH for SGCC's Seventh Annual Consumer Symposium. The event featured the release of the “2017 State of the Consumer Report”, the presentation of the 2017 CLEAR Awards and many engaging sessions on the present and future of consumer engagement in smart energy. In case you couldn’t make it to this year’s Symposium (or if you'd just like to review your favorite sessions), many of the presentation materials are available for download here.

Looking back at the event, here are three key takeaways that we learned in San Diego:

1) Smart grid is foundational to the smart city

Jesse Berst, SGCC's founder and the current president of Smart Cities Council, joined us for the much-anticipated keynote address, and he did not disappoint.

Jesse provided an overview of smart cities and smart city projects that have been completed or are underway across the globe. This transformation in public health, transportation, water, public safety and energy is not a distant pipe dream; this is already well underway in many of the world's cities.

In his overview of the smart city, Jesse identified three key components: collect, communication and compute. Through a citywide network of censors, real-time data is collected that tells us the status of highways, buildings and other city infrastructure. Different parts of the smart city can communicate directly with each other, improving efficiency. And finally, the smart city computes for predictive analytics and real-time optimization.

The goal of the smart city is fairly simple: to make city residents happier, healthier and more productive while using fewer resources.

Jesse then focused on the role that the smart grid plays in the smart city; electricity along with telecommunications is one of the two pillars of a smart city. Smart city projects aim to improve livability, workability and sustainability of our urban areas, but without advancements in smart energy, the objectives of the smart city won’t be fully realized.

2) Customers of all income levels are interested in smart energy programs

Jeff Weiser, PayGo, discussing pre-pay program benefits
One of the most popular panels of the day was “Shattering the Myth of the Digital Divide” led by Georgia Watch’s Liz Coyle and featuring panelists from PayGo, Con Edison, Elevate Energy and Nest Labs. The session focused on how to customize outreach and tailor programs to low-income consumers and how to empower these consumers to engage in smart energy programs.

Low-income consumers are often left out of the conversation around smart energy, but this group of consumers may have the most to gain by participating in these programs. Energy bills are often the third-highest fixed bill each month for low-income Americans. Lowering energy bills can make a big difference in these consumers’ lives, and they are very interested in engaging in smart energy programs if utilities connect with them.

The panelists then provided some examples of engagement with low-income consumers. Chris Raup from Con Edison talked about the utility’s pilot program for making clean, renewable energy available to low-income customers at no cost. Consumers enrolled in the utility’s low-income bill assistance program can access solar energy and can see savings over $60 per year, according to early estimates.

Jeff Gleeson of Nest Labs discussed a program designed to get significantly discounted, refurbished smart thermostats into the homes of lower-income consumers, and Elle Corrado discussed Elevate Energy’s energy efficiency programs and community outreach programs in the Chicago area. Jeffrey Weiser, CEO of PayGo, talked about the company's innovative pre-pay solution that allows consumers to see their energy usage in real time. This economical solution allows consumers to set budgets and view their up-to-the-minute usage on their mobile app or through text or email notifications.

The main takeaway from this panel seemed to be the consensus among all participants that low-income consumers are very interested in participating smart energy programs if they are aware of them and if the outreach focuses on benefits (especially cost savings) they will see.

3) Sharing of consumer usage data is essential for smart grid 2.0

Some of the most vibrant debate of the day was during the “Safely Unlocking the Value of Consumer Data” panel led by Judith Schwarz, president of To the Point, and featuring participants from Illinois Citizens Utility Board, IBM, Opower and Green Button Alliance.

After recent high-profile data breaches in the health care and retail sectors, consumers are rightfully wary about how their energy data is being shared and stored. Protecting consumer data is important, and communicating a commitment to protecting consumer's privacy is critical as smart energy technology proliferates.

Most consumer-facing smart energy programs require either real-time or interval data to get the highest outcome from the program. According to Mission:Data, simply providing consumers with access to their energy data enables household energy savings averaging more than 12 percent.

Much of the discussion in this session focused on the Department of Energy's DataGuard program and how it can be considered a Good Housekeeping-type seal of approval for the energy data – an easy reference point for consumers to know their data is safe. DataGuard is an energy data privacy program that was designed and developed by industry stakeholders to provide consumers assurance that their energy data is being protected and treated responsibly. The voluntary program provides principles around the access, use and sharing of customer data.

Key tenets of the DataGuard program include, for example, customers being given prior notice about privacy-related policies and practices and customers having a degree of control over access to their own data.

In order for smart grid 2.0 to achieve its aims, consumer data will need to play an integral role. And for this to happen, consumers need to feel that their data is being safely handled by industry stakeholders.

Thank you to everyone that participated in this year’s Consumer Symposium. We hope you enjoyed this year’s event and discovered new insights and applicable takeaways on today’s smart energy consumers. If you have any feedback on the event, we would love to hear from you.

Finally, we have just announced the dates for our 2017 Members Meeting and Fall Workshop. Thanks to the gracious support of host, Austin Energy, we will be in Austin, Texas on Sept. 13-14. Mark your calendars! More information and registration will be available in the coming weeks at www.smartgridcc.org

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Exploring Consumer Expectations in the World of Amazon, Uber and Apple

Last week, following the Jan. 9 release of the “Customer Experience & Expectations” report, we presented a webinar to delve into some of the key findings of the research. I was joined on the presentation by Bridget Meckley, SGCC's Research Coordinator, and Gomathi Sadhasivan, Lead of Customer Decision Sciences at DNV GL, and SGCC's Research Committee Chair.

Bridget started things off with an overview of the research. SGCC undertook this research as we wanted to truly understand whether experiences with a variety of service providers were affecting how consumers viewed their energy provider. Grid modernization has now been going on for several years, and we sought to understand how the environment is changing.

For this research project, we conducted a survey of 2,000 online respondents and collected information on consumer awareness of smart grid concepts and benefits, interest in six value propositions and experiences and preferences for six typical touchpoints in the consumer-provider relationship.

In all of our research, we try to understand consumer behavior and attitudes, and for the “Customer Experience & Expectations” research, we looked at consumers through three dimensions:
  • SGCC's segmentation framework: Green Champions, Savings Seekers, Status Quo, Movers & Shakers and Technology Cautious
  • Technology use: All tech, leisure tech, transaction and no tech
  • Energy use: Significant use, average use and baseline use

Value propositions

Within this framework of consumer segments, energy user profiles and technology use, we examined consumer propensities for six value propositions and six touchpoints.

For each value proposition presented to consumers, we looked at four elements:

  • Control – the amount of control that the consumers retains
  • Transaction burden – the consumer's investment in money, time and/or effort
  • Information sharing – the level of personal information that the consumer must share   
  • Incentive – the size of any benefit plus any other inducements
While both transaction burden and information sharing do seem to have some impact on consumer interest, we found that control has an enormous effect on consumers' willingness to participate in a program. However, for value proposition six, we took away consumers’ control and still saw a fair level of consumer interest due to a high incentive offered.

Consumers make trade-offs every day in their purchases, and how energy stakeholders mix and match the trade-offs is important in how they structure and communicate offers.

Finally, Bridget closed this section by reviewing key tips for marketing offers for consumers from the updated version of the “Consumer Value Proposition”, which will be released in the coming weeks by SGCC’s Education & Outreach Committee:
  1. Use specific, positive words and phrases
  2. Dependable service, economic benefit and quick power restoration appeal to almost all consumers, but marketers need to focus on the end results not the process.
  3. Use short, direct statements.

Touchpoints

Next, Bridget turned the presentation over to Gomathi, who covered the touchpoints that consumers generally have with their utilities and other service providers.

We looked at the typical things that every consumer does with any service provider – pay a pill, sign up for a service, report a problem, resolve a problem, receive personalized offers and receive general information. We used these touchpoints to help consumers tell us what they liked and who did those things well.

For bill payment, consumers reflect a desire for ease; more than half indicate that they prefer to pay their utility bill online. However, Status Quo and Technology Cautious consumers do still prefer to pay by a check in the mail.

When probing customers on how they would like to receive general information, customers prefer to be able to access that info on their own time for customer-initiated interactions. Across all segments the favored method is a website inquiry, and a phone call with a customer service representative was a distant second for most segments. This touchpoint reveals that autonomy is important to all consumers, as most consumers do not prefer to receive information through push notifications or monthly emails.

When customers are looking for information that may be deemed complex or unusual, however, customers overwhelmingly prefer a high-touch method. When establishing a service, 64 percent prefer a phone call, web chat or in-person contact. When reporting a problem, 77 percent prefer phone, webchat or in-person contact. And finally, when resolving a problem, over 80 percent of consumers prefer a phone call, web chat or in-person contact.

Next, we took a look at personalized product and service offers aimed at consumers and compared utilities against online retailers, banks, telecommunications companies and home security companies, to name a few. The key takeaway from this part of the research is that over half of consumers believe that no service providers do this well. Not a single service provider passes the 20 percent mark, but utilities do come out on top at 17 percent.

This represents a huge opportunity for utilities as they have access to customers’ energy consumption history, and this data can be mined to develop tailored offers customers value and find useful.

Opportunities

For the final section, we reviewed opportunities for utilities that can be taken away from this research. While utilities are doing relatively well overall at providing customer service, they have much to learn about innovation, at least in consumers’ minds. Banks and online retailers, for example, are regarded as much more innovative than utilities.

When asked whether they believe that utilities are “consistent”, “knowledgeable”, “efficient” and “easy to do business with”, the vast majority believe so, with 89 percent of the Green Champions and 93 percent of the Technology Cautious.

However, at the same time, the majority of Movers & Shakers, who can be seen as the early adopters of new technologies and services, see utilities as “costly” and “bureaucratic”. This discerning subset of consumers is looking for innovation, and utilities have an opportunity to improve here.

When customers are looking to resolve a problem, providing excellent customer service is essential to maintaining customers’ satisfaction. We asked consumers to rank a group of service providers from best to worst on how they handle problem resolution. Utilities did very well, finishing second behind, once again, banks. Utilities were ranked higher than communications providers and even online retailers.

Conclusion

A major question that we sought to answer with this research is “Are consumers comparing utilities to service providers from other industries who have done a lot of digitization and modernizing of products and services?” The extent to which consumers have been affected by companies like Uber, Amazon and Netflix varies significantly by segmentation. While many consumers do prefer a high-tech experience, there is also a role for high-touch customer service – even for technologically savvy groups of consumers.


To learn more about the “Customer Experience & Expectations” report, download a free Executive Summary at www.smartgridcc.org.