Steven M. Brown, Associate Editor
The fundamental rules for selling online are not much different from the rules for selling offline. One adage sums it up neatly: Find a need and fill it.
Finding the need to fill, however, can be a bit of a trick.
Service offerings recently launched by PECO Energy and Georgia Power would suggest that utilities are beginning to crack the online sales code. The need, in this case, comes from commercial and industrial (C&I) customers who require detailed, easily accessible information about their energy usage. PECO, Georgia Power and others have discovered the need can be filled uniquely, appropriately and cost-effectively via Web-based energy analysis tools.
PECO began offering its energy analysis service-PECO e-VALUATOR-to C&I customers in mid-March 2001, and at the time of this writing about 20 customers had signed up to use the online tool. PECO is target marketing the service to approximately 30,000 C&I customers who seem most likely to benefit from Web-based energy analysis. e-VALUATOR is provided on an application service provider basis by ABB Energy Interactive and is co-branded by PECO.
PECO’s e-VALUATOR processes energy data collected from the utility’s automatic meter reading (AMR) network and converts it into easy-to-understand graphs and reports, which are then delivered to the customer via the Internet to be viewed on a standard Web browser. The customer-side requirements-basically, an AMR meter and a Web browser-are minimal, and signing up for the service is as simple as, say, ordering a book through Amazon.com.
PECO is currently selling three levels of the e-VALUATOR service: silver, which offers data on daily intervals and daily measured demand; gold, which offers data on hourly intervals, daily measured demand and access to one year of monthly historical data; and platinum, which offers data on half-hourly intervals, daily measured demand and access to a year of hourly and half-hourly historical data. PECO charges eligible C&I customers a start-up and monthly fee for the service, with a minimum contract period of 12 months.
The combination of functionality and user-friendliness has PECO enthused about e-VALUATOR’s potential as a customer satisfaction tool and as a revenue generator, said Mark Strutz, PECO’s manager of AMR strategy.
“We think there’s a strong market potential for e-VALUATOR,” Strutz said. “So far, we’ve had success making sales, and the customers who have the service have been delighted with it.
“We have some very sophisticated customers who track their energy usage in a very archaic manner,” he said. “With e-VALUATOR, we think we’ve given them a very effective tool to help make their lives a little more pleasant.”
Strutz noted that PECO plans to build additional customer services on top of the Web-based e-VALUATOR foundation. “We see this as an opportunity to establish ourselves as more than just an electron provider. Overall, we’re looking to create opportunities for our customers to buy other services from PECO beyond energy analysis.”
Southern Company offers a service to its C&I customers similar to PECO’s e-VALUATOR. Through EnergyDirect.com, Southern’s business customers can access up-to-date and historical usage and billing information from multiple accounts in the form of graphs, tables and reports, and analyze that data against a number of different parameters. Georgia Power was the first of Southern’s operating companies to begin offering EnergyDirect.com in early 2001, and the service is now available to C&I customers of all of Southern’s regional utility companies. Like PECO’s e-VALUATOR, Southern’s EnergyDirect.com offers three premium packages-ranging in price from $30 to $90 per month-each with progressively richer functionality. Southern also offers a free energy analysis package.
Chris Savage, EnergyDirect.com’s project manager at Georgia Power, said that the number of subscribers to the free and premium services has been encouraging. Across the Southern Company system between 400 and 500 customers have signed up for the pay packages, and thousands are using the no-fee package, Savage said.
The type of energy analysis tools being offered by PECO and Southern Company are uniquely suited for online sale and delivery. The immediacy, ubiquity and flexibility of the Web are driving the popularity of the services among the utilities’ C&I customers.
“Instead of waiting until next month and seeing energy usage information on 70 pages of computer printout, the customer can see yesterday’s data this morning and immediately zero in on what’s happening with their energy usage,” Strutz said.
Savage pointed out that the Web-based nature of products like EnergyDirect.com and e-VALUATOR allows the customer to access and use the service when and how they want to.
“The real benefit to the customer is that the service is online, and it’s a click away,” Savage said. “You’re really never more than three clicks away from the information you’re looking for. The service makes all the information very easy to access.”
While it remains to be seen how profitable online energy analysis can be in the long term for utilities, the necessary elements for success are there: a need is being filled, and, as a result of the Web’s distinct qualities, it is being filled quickly and easily. Perhaps most importantly, customers are buying in.