Design matters, we all need partnerships and trying something new is something worth trying at least once.
These are only three of the takeaways from the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative’ s recent “2017 State of the Consumer Report” webinar. It focused on how utilities can better reach customers through presentation, service and innovation.
Yes, the grid is changing, with the word “transformation” being thrown around like a minor league baseball these days. But here’s a major league truth: Distributed energy, customer choice and the torrid pace of technological change are going to leave the utility behind if they don’t take a swing at all customer-facing curveballs that come their way.
Good news is that many customers already are rooting for them.
“Our research also repeatedly tells us that utilities have a role to play,” said Gomathi Sadhasivan, lead-customer decision services at DNV GL and SGCC’s research committee chair. “A utility endorsement boosts the likelihood of adoption amongst those who indicate an interest in the technology.”
Those technologies include rooftop solar, electric vehicles and other new ways of consuming energy or simply using it more efficiently and cost-effectively. There’s also smart thermostats and smart appliances and other smart things.
Some utilities are getting smarter, too, or risk getting left behind. It does not have to be that way.
The SGCC’s various reports and case studies detailed in the “State of the Consumer” event focused on the aforementioned technologies and also such offshoots as community solar and time-of-use pricing. SGCC’s research coordinator Bridget Meckley highlighted new programs by utilities such as Arcadia Power and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) which are trying unique ways of connecting customers with the bottom line.
“It’s about the money,” Meckley said, but it’s also about the clarity of the communication. “What’s key to this is that they will participate and pay for products and services they understand and that they value. Consumers need to understand what they’re getting from their participation.”
Arcadia Power achieved clarity with a program that seeks new ways of encouraging community solar participation, while SMUD achieved similar ends by cultivating customers to opt into a time-of-use pricing offering and retaining them in it.
Customers need something different. By and large they trust their utilities but the customer service experience is not as good as banks and online retailers do it. Those entities make the transactions simple and tailored their efforts depending on the customer’s known interests.
“We have a wealth of information sitting in customer information systems that tells us a lot about the consumer and how they use products,” Meckley noted. “If we know somebody has solar, that’s pretty easy—offer them net metering”
“We can use this to provide the most logical next step service to those consumers,” she added. “And they will delighted if we do, because they are not happy now.”
Enter segmentation—or doing deeper research to understand the customer— and program design. How an offer is framed is key to adoption, Sadhasivan noted.
As an example, she noted a smart thermostat campaign by CPS Energy. To ensure the broadest reach, the utility partnered with retailers during a peak shopping season to reach consumer with the choice of several high-end thermostats at discounted rates.
This type of program touches all the bases.
“It’s the interplay between the level of control consumers retain, what incentive they could realize by participating in the offer, the transaction burden, the time and effort that they would need to invest in order to participate and the amount of information the customer needs to share,” she said. “It’s the interplay between all these elements and getting it just right that matters.”
Meckley, who has worked three decades in the utility industry, said remediation—another word for staying connected to the customer after a transaction is done and fixing problems when they rise—was a big deal back in her early days and still is. Yet the smart grid and its technological advances are changing how that is done .
“Remediation has a different flavor to it,” she said. “It just doesn’t remediate or fix a problem, it’s a point of touching that consumer and it now has gained some additional meaning.”
SGCC’s Empowered Consumer report found that customer interest transcends technologies. They typically believe their utility if it is engaged in a new offering like rooftop solar or charging stations, and they’ll buy in if they are interested in that kind of thing.
The key is to be ready to change and become a trusted advisor if that’s the door that is open.