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Utility-Customer Partnerships

Engaging the consumer takes on new meaning.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2010

I do not feel qualified to answer this.

To date, we have been relatively passive, on the whole, in our engagement attempts. Our communication has been mostly 1) the monthly bill mailing; 2) call-center interactions with a minority of our customers; and 3) some very good activities from our communications department ( i.e., ‘SystemWatch’ outage reporting, promotional advertisement campaigns, and appropriate news bulletins).

However, this is changing, as we are moving into a world with varying prices, significant usage information, and a multitude of new products. We are learning to engage our customers in our demand-response pilots, but I believe that we will have much more to learn as time goes on.


Learning Lessons

Fortnightly: Are there any specific lessons learned so far vis-à-vis customer-engagement attempts?

Nuttall, OG&E: I think our smart-grid team has excelled in their engagement of our customers. I think their willingness to elevate and investigate customer issues, rather than putting off customers who complain, has helped the small number of issues we experienced not explode into a groundswell against the program.

McLeod, APS: We’ve learned that customers recognize a good deal when they see one. Like many utilities, APS must meet ambitious renewable energy goals that include a distributed component. To encourage customers to install solar photovoltaic panels on their homes, we offer a substantial rebate. Last year, we reached a tipping point in customer engagement with solar when customers oversubscribed the program and exhausted the funding allotted by regulators. This year, we offer rebates on a sliding scale: When the solar-panel program reaches a certain number of subscribed customers, we reduce the rebate amount.

As a company we learn what works and what doesn’t from our customers every day. With all of our outreach and our dozens of options to keep customers engaged, we work hard to listen to customers through different channels. In today’s technology-driven world, one unhappy customer can lead to a flurry of online journalists spreading a story and shining a negative light on APS. Let me give a specific example of this.

Last year, we experienced a situation where a customer started an on-line blog expressing dissatisfaction with a recent billing interaction with our company. The customer felt her concerns were not being adequately heard, so she used the blog to vent her frustrations at us and other utilities. Within hours of the blog posting, her Web site was proactively indentified by our communications team through regular social media monitoring. We then used the blog to identify the customer and immediately initiated on-line and phone contact. Once we made contact with the customer, we were able to quickly resolve her concerns, while at the same time using this experience as a learning opportunity.

The customer was so appreciative of our unsolicited outreach and response that she went back to her blog and deleted it. In its place, she started a new blog featuring energy-efficiency and customer service tips and actually linked site visitors directly back to our company’s Web site. APS worked with the customer not because we wanted the online