Calling himself the “world’s greatest consumer,” utility watchdog Michael Shames helped in 1981 to create the Utility Consumers’ Action Network (UCAN), where he has served as executive director...
CEO FORUM: Dealing with Disruption
Leaders adapt to strategic shifts in the utility landscape.
cause-and-effect relationship between new meters and higher bills. Oncor has been proactive about addressing this in Texas, but any time there’s a one-size solution there will be that kind of effect. Everybody has unique needs and circumstances. And when the customer chooses the solution, it brings greater customer accountability.
Our goal will be to take the new platform and use it to raise the capabilities for every customer. Some people will be interested in those capabilities and some won’t, but all customers will get benefits around reliability, outage management and customer service.
Weston, Direct Energy: One problem is that TOU pricing programs tend to focus on their ability to reduce customers’ bills. That is an over simplification, and it focuses on only a small portion of what TOU pricing and smart meters will be able to do. TOU pricing and smart meters might reduce bills through energy efficiency improvements, by encouraging customers to upgrade their appliances, for example. But TOU alone might not provide a lower bill. Utilities will have to determine how to use the information that’s coming back from meters, and what you can do to help the customer.
Spence, PPL: One thing we’ve learned is that while customers do view us as the experts and they rely on us for advice, it needs to be simple. Sometimes utilities tend to approach information from an engineering perspective, and that’s too complex or onerous for effective customer engagement. We’ve got to simplify the message wherever we can.
And dynamic pricing needs to be viewed as a choice. When customers think they’re being forced into something, then you disengage the customer pretty quickly.
Ratcliffe, Southern Company: The key is making sure the regulator agrees with your strategy, that the technology is sound and it works well, and then educating customers about what it can and can’t do.
We’re going slowly in turning on the technology to make certain the meters actually work well and are accurate. We had the meters independently verified. Where there have been complaints, we’ve been quick to respond and test meters. Where there’s anything wrong, we fix it. It’s about being responsive, thorough and transparent about what we’re trying to do, and ultimately adding new capabilities that will give customers more choices about how they use energy, and how they can save the cost of electricity in their lifestyle.
Fortnightly: How can utilities improve customer-service processes, including communication and education, to aid the transition toward customers taking more responsibility for their energy consumption decisions?
Ratcliffe, Southern Company: We’ve always had challenges educating customers because of the diversity in our customer base. We do everything from public communications in the regulatory process to bill inserts to advertising. All of those will have some impact to varying degrees with different segments of customers, but with others it won’t have much impact. It’s easier to communicate one-on-one with large industrial customers than with residential customers. You have to do more mass communications with customers. You just have to stay with it.