Is your utility socially awkward?

Up your apps, social media, responsive mobile sites

By Kristen Wright, senior editor

If utilities ignore customers’ wants – interactive apps, social media and responsive mobile sites-any number of companies that are listening could fight to take over a largely untapped market.

In just 30 years, the number of mobile devices exploded from zero to more than 7.4 billion, according to GSMA Intelligence. That’s more than the number of people on earth.

“Three years ago, I wouldn’t be concerned with what’s going on with social,” said Greg Dunlap, vice president of customer operations at PSE&G, New Jersey’s largest electric and gas utility.

Tips for Better Mobile Customer Experiences

Pepco launched a mobile app for Blackberries six years ago to display outage maps.

“Needless to say, we don’t still support Blackberry,” said Walt Stefy, process owner, cus- tomer experience at Pepco Holdings Inc.

As of April, the Pepco mobile app had 263,000 downloads with 25,000 monthly users and an average of 2,900 streetlight outage reports each month, Stefy said.

He has some advice for electric utilities that are diving into digital: Cus- tomer testing and usability needs to be part of every utility’s app development. “And don’t wait until you’re done,” Stefy said. Retired Duke Energy Senior Vice President of Smart Grid and Customer Systems Todd W. Arnold agrees. He said utilities should ask themselves a few things before going live with responsive digital platforms, including:

“- Is our button size on touchscreens large enough for most fingers?

“- What do customers want to do most often in this platform?

“- Can customers perform those tasks with only a couple of touches?

But things are changing fast, he said, even in the conservative utility world.

“Whatever is coming, we have to be ready for it,” Dunlap said.

He was one of several utility speakers at CS Week Conference 39 in Charlotte, North Carolina, who emphasized the growing importance of social media and digital platforms.

Rich Charles, a principal at Ernst & Young (EY), said digital is one of six megatrends that are driving the future of utilities. He referenced “generation C,” those plugged-in consumers who use digital religiously, as a reason utilities must incorporate mobile bill pay and real- time customer communications.

Charles said the combination of millennials, plus smartphones, plus broadband penetration, plus disposable incomes equal content-hungry customers and an accelerated digital adoption rate. Nevertheless, most utilities have yet to craft comprehensive digital strategies, Charles said.

Catching up Over Coffee

For utilities that remain unaware of how digital adoption can deliver perks, maybe the next story will serve as a stimulant.

Vickie Dorris, IBM’s global solutions leader of customer operations in the energy and utilities industry, said the industry is getting more connected, and it’s all about the customer experience. Utilities, she said, should ask themselves if they’re good enough or exceptional.

“I think we’re only beginning to scratch the surface with social data,” Dorris said.

She shared how a company outside the industry used social media data to support and reconfigure its business practices.

A coffee company, Dorris said, noticed that sales volumes at specific stores would be stable, then suddenly would slump. It didn’t make sense, and the coffee bean counters couldn’t peg the problem. IBM, she said, is the only company with access to all Twitter data, so it performed a Twitter analysis. The answer wasn’t bad brew, but relationship status. IBM discovered customers were breaking up with their go-to coffee spots when specific baristas left their positions at those locations. The revelation provided the coffee company a reason to boost barista retention, Dorris said.

What Customers Want

The intimacy, immediacy and innovation brought about by the digital revolution have created spoiled utility customers who are getting smarter faster than utilities, said Todd W. Arnold. The retired senior vice president of smart grid and customer systems at Duke Energy presented a session called “Rethinking Customer Care for Our Connected World.”

“I started in the 1970s, when the main customer service tool was microfiche,” Arnold said.

He said these days, 43 percent of Americans sleep next to their phones, and 75 percent of Americans have used devices in restrooms. Smart devices also deliver immediate results that call centers do not. On top of that, utility customers are accustomed to an open platform that allows for the easy development and distribution of 1.3 million apps for mobile devices. Of course utility customers want it all, and they want it now, he said.

Utilities could learn a few things from companies that are doing digital right, Arnold said. They are always connected, always on and redefining excellence: FedEx, Uber, Apple Pay, DirectTV and Nest Thermostat, he said. In the business world, you are irrelevant if you are not engaging customers, Arnold said.

He cited Salt River Project (SRP) as a utility that engages customers in the ways they want to be contacted. In 2014, SRP sent 60 million emails and 1 million texts, Arnold said.

Texas Women Want McConaughey

Saurabh Bansal, director of innovation and business strategy at Reliant Energy in Houston, said all the company’s mobile apps are based on customer acquisition and retention. Bansal said Reliant launched its first app, which showed only customer usage data, in 2010.

The company also launched two game apps.

The number of customer downloads were disappointing, Bansal said. The feedback? Customers just wanted to pay their bills.

So then Reliant got creative using demographic data. A study showed that 64 percent of power consumption decision- makers in Texas are women. Reliant hired actor Matthew McConaughey to perform voice overs in commercials that touted the app. The commercials featuring McConaughey’s voice won Best Overall Campaign in the 2013 Utility Ads Awards Contest.

These days, Reliant’s bill pay screen gets the most hits, and the projected bill is the most popular feature, Bansal said. Another Reliant app allows the subscriber to send a photo of a competitor’s bill, and Reliant will beat the rate. Alerts are also popular.

Examples include:

“- Email or text me five days before my bill is due.

“- Alert me if I exceed my budget.

“- Alert me if my daily usage exceeds X.

Reliant launched its app Aug. 1, 2013, with a goal of 20,000 downloads in one year. By Aug. 1, 2014, the app had been downloaded 159,000 times: 76,000 on Apple devices and 82,000 on Androids. As of March 31, 2015, the Reliant app hit 246,000 downloads: 112,000 on Apple devices and 134,000 on Androids, Bansal said.

When the Lights Go Out

Kim Friebel, Web and mobile manager, echannels, at Chicago-based ComEd, presented in the same panel session as Bansal.

“Things definitely change in storm,” she said.

During a recent storm, 35 percent of ComEd’s affected storm customers contacted the utility, which means 65 percent of affected storm customers made no contact.

Only 18 percent of affected storm customers went through the care center, Friebel said.

On ComEd’s desktop site during a storm, a banner shows the latest information. Same goes for the mobile site.

Friebel said ComEd gets the most text alert enrollments through IVR during storms. The company also uses outage reporting though Facebook.

Friebel also sees two trends: customer self-service and cross-channel impacts across social media and IVR. In 2014, 82 percent of all ComEd transactions were conducted in self-service, Friebel said. The result is a growing number of customer app sessions.

“It’s a team effort,” she said.

Is Your Utility Socially Awkward?

Experts warn that utilities must adopt interactive customer apps, social media and responsive mobile sites to keep customers happy, informed and self-served.

These days, the utilities that still rely on socially awkward customer engagement strategies from three years ago might as well go back 30.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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