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".

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