Self-service Customer Engagement Lights the way Ahead for Utilities
BY ROD WALTON, SENIOR EDITOR
Power to the people right now.
That rallying cry dating back to the 1960s has taken on a whole new meaning in the utility sector 50 years later. Truly radical advancements in smart meters and data analytics have made self-service customer engagement a tool for the here and now instead of a mantra for the future. You don’t have to just imagine anymore.
Viva la difference if you want to survive. In a mere matter of months or years, not decades, many customers will have the power to tailor their electricity delivery purely to their own individual wants and needs. That could mean rooftop or community solar, time-of-use rates, paperless billing, demand response and smart thermostat options and many other things.
And if you think the pace of change is settling down, you’re wrong. It’s only getting started.
“This is ever evolving. There are always better tools coming out,” said Carim Khouzami, chief financial officer of Exelon Utilities and sponsor of the company’s multi-phase project, called Business Intelligence and Data Analytics (BIDA), that uses insights from smart-grid data to improve customer experience and operational efficiency. “I don’t think the journey is over in three to five years.”
Exelon, the largest utility holding company in the U.S., has rolled out the first phase of its BIDA effort with a program called Smart Energy Services (SES) that is focused around home energy usage and efficiency reports for millions of customers. Exelon is partnering with OPower on the residential portion and FirstFuel Software on the upcoming commercial and industrial side.
Both BIDA and SES arise out of the massive rollout of smart meters undertaken by Exelon units ComEdison, Baltimore Gas & Electric, PECO and Delmarva, among others. Khouzami said the next step was developing use cases, or opportunities, to understand and then act on this data. Layers of smart-meter information were combined with customer preferences, weather data and other statistics. This information was fed into a data lake, over which the third-party vendors’ applications were laid and interacted.
Exelon utilities went live with SES earlier this year. Mark Case, vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs at BGE, was charged with sponsoring SES from development to go-live. He said that building the IT architecture for SES was the most complex thing up front.
“Once built it provides a great platform for the future,” Case said. “Setting that up is definitely something. It’s at the front edge, it’s new territory.”
Moving to the next level of value from advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has been a goal of utilities since the first wave of savings from reduced meter reading and other early efficiencies. Exelon is only one example of bigger companies that totally get this. Italy-based Enel’s North American unit acquired a 100-percent stake in Demand Energy Networks to gain its software and energy storage capabilities. Others such as Ameren also are diving into their own initiatives.
Renewables and storage, for instance, should play a huge role in future customer engagement options. Millennials-the largest upcoming customer class-seem to be demanding clean energy options such as rooftop solar, while they’re also open to new technologies that can offer tailored rate modules and load-shaving tools.
“They are signifying greater support and interest in clean, renewable energy,” said Marlene Motyka, principal and U.S. and global renewable energy leader for research and consulting firm Deloitte’s Transactions and Business Analytics unit. “They are more interested in connecting electronically through an app, say, for energy management. They say they are getting tips through social media around energy management.”
|Smart Energy Services print insert. Courtesy Exelon.|
Surveys and customer segmentation indicate that millennials could potentially have the longest relationship with utilities going forward but also are the most likely to leave the utility for home-generated clean options or other competitive options. They don’t suffer technology fools gladly.
“Not only are they demanding, but the nature and mode of their demands are changing at such a great pace that a typical customer model doesn’t work anymore for creating a 360-degree customer view,” said Ashiss Kumar Dash, vice president and industry head for resources and utilities at Infosys. “First and foremost, the utilities need to relook at who the real customer is and what a utility wants to be to that customer.”
Vendor firms work hard to help energy providers gain actionable insights at every step in the customer engagement, Dash added. Engagements are given context by breaking them down into “micro moments,” he said. This is done by smart meter data, social media encounters and predictive service customization.
“It (the electricity provider) must empower customers with personalized energy management choices and increased adoption of programs focused on sustainability, like paperless billing and energy efficiency,” Dash said. “Good thing is, the sustainability aware customer is also a hyper-mobile and connected one. This presents an enormous opportunity for utilities to drive sustainability initiatives through capabilities like click-to-chat, smart videos, customer surveys and other tools that capture sentiments.”
Echoeing Motyka’s sentiments about millennials, Dash pointed out that Infosys developed solutions that analyze behavioral patterns. Utilities need to deepen their focus on segmentation and personalization. In addition, he sees no end of new technologies which will push self-service customer engagement forward.
“Artificial intelligence-based customer experience-where insights about the customer are used for driving a much more personal, effective and targeted engagement-are ready to be used right now,” Dash said. “Internet of Things and connected home technologies now provide hyper-contextual information that can be used to guide self-service customer engagement within the home (and) on the customer’s preferred connected channel.”
Exelon has started its journey into more analytical, responsive and personalized customer engagement. What it’s learned in the first few months won’t compare with what transpires over the next several years. Case sees the best way forward as a function of time in deciding what works best, alone or together.
“I tend to look at this in the future as a combination of things,” he said. “There’s solar and storage, smart thermostats, fuel cells and electric vehicles, for sure. Then there’s home automation.”
Some of those programs will go solely through Exelon’s utilities, while some will be done through partnerships with such third parties as FirstFuel, Opower and Olivine. The combination changes as the needs of the self-service customer engagement change.
“We’re not trying to push a one size fits all,” Case said. “Customers have different use patterns. We want a standard set of rules but ones that provide customized information.”