SMUD, Duke Power win EL&P/Chartwell Projects of the Year

Kathleen Davis, associate editor

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and Duke Power emerged victorious in the inaugural launch of EL&P and Chartwell’s Projects of the Year Awards. SMUD claimed the top prize on the marketing side with their HomePower program launch/Tower Records campaign. Duke Power garnered gold in customer service with their enhanced interactive voice response (IVR) project.

marketing winner

In 2003, SMUD introduced HomePower, a subscription in-home electrical repair service, and they were launching the new service program in a market that is unaccustomed to such offerings from their public utility. Still, SMUD reached for some ambitious goals with the campaign: to attain broad market penetration rates in the first year of operations and to become revenue neutral by year five.

The 2003 launch of HomePower incorporated multiple initiatives built around a consistent design and message platform. Everyday objects (switches, fuses, outlets) were used as the foundation of their marketing campaign. Their broad-based strategy included print advertising, direct mail, radio advertising, four retail partnerships, bill inserts, call center cooperation, trade shows and press releases.

The centerpiece of the campaign was the HomePower program brochure, with its simple photo of a lightswitch paired with intense color contamination.

“SMUD used creative, attractive and eye-catching imagery to illustrate a somewhat technical and potentially dull offering—an in–home electrical wiring warranty,” stated Jennifer Allen, manager of Chartwell’s utility marketing research series and one of the judges in the contest.

“I was also impressed by the extent of the partnerships with local retailers and sports teams that SMUD used to sell the product,” Allen added.

Indeed, SMUD’s four incentive programs were conducted with partners: Tower Records, ACE Hardware, the Sacramento Kings and the Sacramento Monarchs. The “Fantastic Plastic” advertising push was one of those four programs and offered a free $20 gift card from Tower Records to customers that signed up for SMUD’s HomePower program within a certain timeframe.

HomePower’s enrollment goal of 6,770 was surpassed within the first nine months of the program. By year’s end, enrollment had reached 9,044. Additionally, market penetration at year’s end was 3.15 percent, in excess of the original goal of 2.4 percent.

“The marketing campaign’s positive results far exceeded expectations,” noted Allen.

“The success of the program confirms its values to our customers,” said John DiStasio, assistant general manager of customer services with SMUD. “A program like this was new for SMUD, but clearly our staff did a great job of communicating to our customers the benefits of this valuable service. Not only did customers enroll in the program in higher-than-expected numbers, but the satisfaction rate of 94 percent demonstrates that this program has delivered as promised.”

In fact, a number of customers agree. Various anonymous customer testimonials that SMUD has received included glowing comments. “This was a wonderful service, and I have recommended it to my neighbors,” one customer stated.

Some of SMUD’s customers even gave their own unsolicited testimonials. Dorothy Clement, SMUD and HomePower client, called up with this statement: “You know, you hear people say that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This [HomePower] really is as good as it says.”

EL&P would like to congratulate SMUD on their win in our marketing category.

customer service winner

Duke Power has been using interactive voice response (IVR) for a decade, but they wanted to create a more positive IVR experience for the customer, who often perceive an IVR as impersonal.

“Our goal is to design an automated system that is fast and user-friendly, creating efficiencies for both our customers and our day-to-day operations,” said Sandra Meyer, group vice president of customer service, sales and marketing at Duke Power.

“Improperly used, IVRs can be an irritant, but if they’re designed from the customer’s perspective, they can meet our customer’s need for convenience as well as the need to operate cost-effectively,” she added.

Their enhancements to the system were implemented in phases, starting back in 2002.

The first phase involved rewriting the existing IVR scripts with more customer-friendly language and shorter menus. They tried to identify the customer early in the process so he would not have to give the same information multiple times. They wanted the customer to never have more than three options per menu and three questions per option. Additionally, they looked to center the program for the most common customer scenarios: billing, outage, service and construction.

The second phase looked to tighten the scripts even further and enhance the customer identification process. Duke Power also wanted to provide customers more options for identification, which would improve the match rate (ensuring the customer is matched with his account when he calls in). Focus groups and feedback were involved in this phase as well.

“We design our IVRs to ensure customers who decide to do business with us using automation experience the same excellent service as customers who decide to speak with our specialists,” said Mark Sessler, general manager of customer contact services with Duke Power. “Our IVRs are based on customer input, and we feel that is key in our ability to create self-serve options customers trust and find useful.”

Phase three automated the credit card and payment processes via the phone system, allowing more options—including entering into a deferred payment agreement. Intelligence is also built into the new system. For example, if a customer has a returned check on his account, he will only be offered a credit card payment via the IVR.

The final phase included automating the outage reporting system and improving the service provided to Spanish-speaking customers by creating a Spanish-language outage report system similar to the English one. (You call 1-800-PowerOn in English and 1-866-4APAGON in Spanish, which translates to “power out.”)

“At first I was leery of an IVR entry, as most utilities have them,” said Dennis Smith, director of editorial research and manager of Chartwell’s customer care research series—as well as a judge for this contest. “But, the level of sophistication and integration certainly brings Duke Power’s application to the forefront. This appears to be as good of an interactive voice response unit as any North American energy delivery organization has in place, and with customer-friendly scripts. It does everything the industry experts preach that it should do.”

Duke Power’s numbers on the IVR challenge are impressive. Before they began their improvements, only 39 percent of their customers were served in the IVR. That number rose to 50 percent after the changes. Additionally, “speedpay” adoption, which was once the domain of specialists (by 64 percent), became an IVR mainstay after the changes (85 percent). Calls identified before transfer rose from 10 percent to 45 percent, and the percent of outages reported in the IVR jumped from 40 percent to 59 percent.

There was one significant drop as well. The time it takes to report an outage fell from 70 seconds to 35 seconds. Based on the numbers, they expect to save $3.8 million annually, with customer service specialists handling 3.2 million fewer calls each year.

EL&P would like to congratulate Duke Power on their win in our customer service category.

Both winners will be presented with their awards at Chartwell’s 7th Annual International Energy Marketing and Customer Service Conference and Expo (EMACS) in Scottsdale, Ariz. The conference will be held October 26-29, 2004.

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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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