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Growing Pains

Utilities work toward a more mature relationship with customers.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2011

to say the least,” says Kevin Lauckner, utility market leader at Honeywell. “Only now is that really starting to change.”

With enough infrastructure now in place, utilities on the smart grid vanguard are implementing programs that actually will change customers’ day-to-day experience. And utilities are learning lessons about the way they’re talking to customers about it.

Southern California Edison, for example, is nearly half way to its goal of installing 5 million smart meters by 2012, and the company’s communication strategy has evolved significantly since the $1.6 billion project kicked off in 2009.

“We’ve tuned our messaging on a dynamic basis,” says Ken Devore, director of Edison SmartConnect, SCE’s smart meter program. “We took some of the jargon out. We initially engineered it to our liking, because that’s how we always talk to each other, but we’ve probably made half a dozen revisions to those first messages.” ( See “Taking it to the People.” )

Throughout the industry, companies are going through a process of trial and error to learn which messages connect and which ones don’t.

“We know that with consumers, money resonates,” Lauckner says. “In some cases, utilities might have to be more frank about the fact that they’re making these changes, at least in part, to avoid building a new power plant in your backyard.”

Gradually, the industry is coming to realize that the primary thrust of its engagement strategy—at least initially—must be emotional. And when the target is less than fully mature, there’s no more effective tack than a direct appeal to human psychology.

In Control

Human beings are driven by a range of motivational factors, some of them conscious, and others unconscious. Utilities need to think carefully about what messages they emphasize, and how they present those messages.

“The advice that we give our utility clients is to focus on the control aspects,” Shelton says. “Try to make it less about the bill and more about the customer being able to take control of their consumption.”

This can be a fairly straightforward message: Prices aren’t going down, life isn’t getting any easier, but the robust technology of the smart grid is creating a multitude of ways customers can control not only their usage, but their whole house and the nature of their relationship with utilities. Delivered correctly, this message has real appeal, because people prefer feeling like they’re in the driver’s seat, rather than being driven in the direction the utility wants them to go.

“There are two universal messages that transcend and resonate across market segments,” Wolf says. “The first one is control—consumer control rather than utility control. The second one revolves around the desire to not waste stuff.”

Waste doesn’t necessarily imply a green sensibility, which raises political and personal objections. Instead, it’s about the fact that most folks don’t like to throw away something valuable, especially something that costs them money. The urge to avoid waste and the urge to be in control represent universal psychological drivers—drivers that utilities can use to sell the benefits of smart grid changes.

“It absolutely has to be