Customer and employee demands are creating positive change in the utility industry

This past November, in the pages of this publication, Renewable Energy World editor Jennifer Runyon posed the question, “How customer-centric should utilities be?” Citing Patty Durand, the President of the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC), and her organization’s many years of research into utility consumers’ attitudes about energy, the answer came back as a resounding, “very!”

Increasingly, utility companies are heeding that call – and in the process, they are beginning to reap the rewards that come from focusing their organizations on delivering great experiences that meet or exceed customers’ ever-more demanding expectations.

With the rise of digital technologies, commercial, industrial and residential energy consumers are demanding a new relationship with their power providers. They have grown accustomed to frictionless digital experiences and personalized service from the likes of Amazon and Google and now expect similar tailored interactions from their energy providers. In this dynamic, the relationship between utility and customer must be more consultative, centered around expert advice concerning power usage, or creative ways to get a better return on investment. And consumers expect energy to be delivered the way they want, e.g., from renewable sources that reduce carbon emissions.

Simply put, they want choices, great experiences (online and offline), and sustainable energy options.

And energy suppliers in both competitive markets and traditional regulated models are responding – even so far as transitioning service and delivery models from fossil-fuel based economies (that have been the bedrock of industry revenue models) to renewables. “We are at the start of an energy revolution,” says Isabelle Kocher, CEO of Engie, a leading company in the industry’s transition to a zero-carbon energy future.

Enabling customer strategies

Fortunately, the utility industry is well-positioned to forge this new customer relationship. How so?

  • Trust. Despite oft-cited Accenture statistics about customers only spending 9 – 11 minutes per year thinking about their utility, a recent survey by the Smart Energy Consumer Collective (SECC) found that 78% of consumers in the U.S. trust their utility and are more likely to participate in a program or purchase a product if their utility endorses it.
  • Customer Knowledge. Utility companies are sitting on a treasure trove of customer data. It’s a golden opportunity to gain greater customer insights and tailor products and services to better satisfy customers. Other companies may have considerable data about a business or residential customer’s energy use, too – but the utility is still the source of the commodity, usage data, and rates. They have the opportunity to use their advantage to benefit the customer, both directly and through strategic (and potentially revenue generating) partnerships.
  • Agile Digital Technologies. Modern, cloud-based technologies are the key to providing 360-degree customer views, transparency into transactions, and the means for creating relationships that will allow for greater customer choice in a value-driven, multi-dimensional energy market. Digital operations are already driving new investment in data-driven technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, IoT sensors, and agile approaches to improving operational and maintenance efficiencies. All of which, in turn, will continue to reinforce the shift to the new partnership between energy companies and their customers.

Driving business efficiencies

British Gas, the largest energy and home services supplier in the United Kingdom (UK), provides an example of how the digital transformation of business processes can increase efficiency while improving its customer relationships. The utility recently deployed a technology solution based on Salesforce and the Vlocity Energy & Utilities Cloud that significantly improved the speed of transactions: quotes that previously took three days are now delivered in under three minutes – an outcome much more in line with the high expectations of British Gas’ business customers.

Modern cloud solutions can help accelerate this customer-centric shift by providing the underpinning technology. Today’s cloud solutions can provide enterprise-grade security, scalability, performance and availability – while also providing a robust and agile base for industry-specific applications, processes and technologies. This allows IT to move at the pace of business and deliver unified, omni-channel customer experiences at a fraction of the price of custom-built or black box offerings. Furthermore, it lays a future-proof foundation for agility, transformation and disruptive innovation without the significant IT and business risks that come with custom solutions or major changes to legacy systems.

Customers benefit from a greatly enriched experience as they gain access to a host of energy information and services from their phone, tablet, laptop or other smart device. Services such as the ability to review current or historic usage patterns, order solar panels or monitor one’s carbon footprint, to name but a few examples.

The zero-carbon transition

French multinational ENGIE recently set a goal to become the world leader in the zero-carbon transition and began shifting from a utility company to a provider of low-carbon energy and services. ENGIE’s ambition is to bring consumers with them on this journey and develop the next generation of employees to deliver this ambitious new service. But even as ENGIE reimagined the ways it engages with customers, like all utility companies, it was challenged by the limitations of legacy systems built for another era. In order to realize the future state it envisioned, ENGIE needed to digitally transform.

Partnering with Salesforce, Vlocity and Accenture, ENGIE replaced a fragmented amalgamation of applications with a single solution offering a common, intelligent view of customers. This allowed it to put its customers at the center of its business while empowering its employees around the world to drive customer success, transitioning together to the zero-carbon energy future they envision. Employees are able to more efficiently serve and advise customers on the right products and services to meet customer green-house gas emissions goals and take their companies into a greener future.

In addition, ENGIE’s commitment to a zero-carbon future is attracting a highly skilled workforce that will serve the company far into the future. “Truly motivated employees rally around their company’s business model,” says ENGIE Chief Digital Officer Yves Le Gelard.

“They are the human link between your company and your customers.”

Building lifetime customer value

ENGIE operates in competitive and newly deregulated energy markets across the EU — markets that by design and by necessity are now driving investment digitalizing both customer and infrastructure operations. Utilities, particularly in the USA, where deregulation lags behind the EU, are learning that even though they have a mostly captive customer base, their customers are going to continue to demand a new relationship and level of individual personalization. So, the need to support digital transformation is just as important – even if it is more challenging due to the sheer size of the customer base and the need to serve all segments of their individual markets.

The bottom line, however, is that the short-term pain is certainly worth the long-term gain for customers and the industry. The modern digital ecosystems that will be created will increase transparency and improve performance for utility customers. This will ensure that they will remain loyal and engaged. In turn, empowered customers will inspire new business models as utility companies learn to quickly adapt to the changing digital energy landscape.

The future for the utilities and power industry will be shaped by those who digitalize first and best. Electrical utilities have a great window of opportunity to seize the lead and shape this digital energy future.

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Kelly James is Vice President and General Manager for Vlocity Energy & Utilities. Quite simply, Vlocity turns Salesforce into the Utility Customer Customer Cloud. Kelly has spent nearly 20 years building and delivering CIS, billing, and customer experience solutions to utilities worldwide, previously with companies including Oracle, Opower, and Salesforce. In her role with Vlocity, Kelly is responsible for industry strategy and for delivering solutions that delight customers and employees, and that positively impact both the utility top-line and bottom-line.

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