OVER THE COURSE OF THE PAST YEAR, ELECTRIC UTILITIES have been immersed in customer communication and learning the ropes of what works for them (and for their customers), and what doesn't. In Intelligent Utility magazine, and in Intelligent Utility Daily, we've shared their thoughts and experiences, as well as those of industry consultants and analysts.
As we all realize, there is no one-size-fits-all consumer engagement plan or road map. Instead, there are some guiding principles worth noting. The details, and the specific strategies, must be built one by one, and evaluated at every step along the way.
Here, in no particular order, are 11 of the top pieces of advice we've heard throughout 2011.
1 Communicate. Early and often.
But even before that, Capgemini's David DuCharme cautioned, "Get your homework done before you even engage the consumer." If you set the expectations very clearly, he said, as San Diego Gas & Electric did when it communicated about the benefits of its smart grid projects-efficiency, cost benefits, and outage benefits-it's a matter of "proving the benefits of what we said was going to happen when we started upgrading our infrastructure."
2 Leverage all digital modes of communication.
Johnny Magwood, vice president of customer experience and chief customer officer for Northeast Utilities, told Intelligent Utility Daily that before Hurricane Irene hit, NU sent out 1.6 million voice messages to its customers, advising them on how to prepare for the storm's impact and informing them of the utility's preparations. After the storm hit, with the technology NU has in place, its utility subsidiaries such as Public Service New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts Electric Companies could take customer calls by a live operator within 26 seconds of the customer dialing; and with a combined live representative plus automation "Average Speed to Answer" was 10 seconds. A year ago, in a similar situation, the wait was 30 minutes.
3 Keep it simple.
"I think utilities need to convey to the customers that they will be involved to the extent that they want to be involved," said Mark Webb, director of policy and business evaluation at Dominion Resources. "Ultimately, customers will have the opportunity themselves to engage and analyze their power usage, and if they're concerned about the environment, they'll also be able to see how their energy usage impacts the environment."
4 Develop customer-centric engagement programs and complaint resolution processes.
In a study of utility consumer engagement practices, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative noted that Austin Energy used direct mail, door hangers and newspaper ads to notify customers of an AMI deployment. Installation personnel notified the billing department of customers who might experience higher bills because their analog meters were running slowly. Customers could schedule the meter swap-out if the utility's first attempt failed. A "rapid response team" immediately addressed the few complaints that arose.
5 Discuss benefits that can be delivered upon within a few months.
Long-term benefits don't ring the same bells. Chris Thomas, policy director, Illinois Citizens Utility Board, told a consumer symposium at ConnectivityWeek, "When you give someone a smart meter, give them an immediate opportunity to tie that information to their pocketbook. It starts to wrap their minds around the way they consume energy and the cost of that energy."
6 Use social media, where appropriate.
"We're finding that customers will communicate via the platform they're most comfortable with," Carey Sullivan, social media manager at AEP, the parent corporation of AEP Ohio, told Intelligent Utility Daily. Though phone calls were the preferred method, followed by e-mails, Facebook and Twitter played a significant role in its community energy storage (CES) project, reflecting Sullivan's observation that, offered all channels, customers will use what suits them. As with the CES project, AEP Ohio's gridSmart program, which is testing interval meters and other elements in the greater Columbus metro area, has taken advantage of social media to educate customers on what's taking place. And it enabled the utility to listen to what's being said publicly about its initiatives.
7 Put your customers first, and mean it.
JEA has built a history of looking at different ways of adding to its customers' options, and decreasing its customers' costs. It introduced online bill payment in 2002, and embarked upon its first automated meter reading (AMR) deployment the same year. "Our marketing puts terms like `smart grid' in the background. We're focusing on the customer who says, `Hey, I want you to help me manage my energy consumption today," JEA's director of smart grid programs, Victor Monfort, told an Intelligent Utility Reality webcast audience in 2011.
9 Build a trusted relationship.
Dave Ling, director, customer service best practices at PPL Electric, told Intelligent Utility Daily: "We realized about four years ago, with the end of rate caps in sight, we'd need our CSRs to become more skilled in the role of being trusted energy advisors. So we trained them to discuss how to use our energy audit tool, in energy conservation techniques and in energy choice. And at the same time we strengthened and expanded our self-service offerings. As we offer more self-service applications for customers, we expect more basic inquiries to get handled via self service. That's vital from a business perspective when we get 5 million customer contacts in a year with contacts increasing significantly each year."
Really listen to your customers to understand their needs and expectations before a smart meter rollout. Both Portland General Electric and Pepco conducted focus groups in advance of their program implementations. Charles Dickerson, vice president for customer care at Pepco, confirmed that it used a third party for the process, did not regard it as prohibitively expensive and cautioned that focus group results offer good insights, if taken in context. Stan Sittser, customer communications supervisor for Portland General Electric, said that PGE talked about smart meters in terms of utility-side efficiencies first, holding off on tangible customer benefits until those were teed up.
11 Empower for engagement.
"We think customer empowerment and engagement are critical to the future of energy at Connecticut Power & Light and across the nation," Jessica Brahaney Cain, director of customer relations and strategy for the utility, told Intelligent Utility Daily. "By `empowerment' we mean providing customers options and personalized, actionable energy information. Customers are more satisfied when we provide them with options, even if they don't choose those options. From the engagement perspective, without having that personalized information, it's not nearly as actionable."