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Engaging Customers

Look to other industries for lessons on marketing services.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2010

engagement is no longer simply nice to have. Engagement is rapidly becoming a necessary skill that all utilities must acquire. As we start to collect data at a more granular level, this capability will allow companies to access and overlay other data sources to better match the right programs with the right people.

Smart-meter technology has the potential to create new billing paradigms that aren’t encumbered by constraints such as meter-read cycles. Programs can be developed that allow customers to select bill dates and bill frequency. Naysayers will present objections regarding such constraints as batch billing windows, data privacy and concerns about the complexity of deploying these campaigns. But if other sectors are deploying technologies to overcome the exact same issues, utilities have to ask, “why can’t we?”

In a utility industry with smart meters and accompanying infrastructure, there will be no need to wait until the end of the month to receive a bill. Customers could gain access to their usage information when they want, and enjoy services that in many ways are closer to those they currently have with cell-phone companies. Beyond this, they could set alerts to tell them when certain spending thresholds are met or even perform “what if” analyses on thermostat changes and appliance usage to decrease energy expenses. In time, utilities even could let customers decide for themselves the frequency and timing of their bills, allowing them to synchronize the delivery of bills with their ability to pay. This ultimately will reduce time-consuming arrears collections and will improve positive customer experiences as a result of better-managed consumption. Creating services around the needs of customers results in many more examples than just support for an in-home display.

A recognized part of the smart-meter business case involves better understanding outages and restoration of services. Many questions remain such as: Is the customer significantly represented in this discussion? Will outage notifications grow more sophisticated and indicate the nature of the issue and estimated restoration times? Will customers be able to nominate third parties to receive this information so, for example, neighbors can turn off the water to prevent pipes from freezing or remove food to stop it from spoiling when the customer is away during an outage?

As with any vision, achieving it requires work, but it’s best to start with an appreciation of what’s possible. Few transformational accomplishments have ever been achieved by setting conservative goals and safe targets.

Right People, Right Products

As this richer tapestry of rates and programs becomes available, how will utility customers know which are right for them? How will they select the rates and demand-response programs that are appropriate for their lifestyles, budgets and behaviors? Customers will look to their utilities for the tools to make data-driven, informed decisions. In turn, utilities can look for lessons from those industries where survival depends on understanding everything about the customers and exceeding their needs and expectations—both realized and unrealized.

Utilities will need to make sure they identify the customers that have the propensity to participate, and the usage to deliver the kinds of load