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Growing Pains

Utilities work toward a more mature relationship with customers.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2011

a combination of rational and emotional messaging,” Wolf says.

But there’s a catch. Putting customers in control might be a powerful idea, but the word itself carries psychological baggage, triggering images of Big Brother, and implying that utilities want to take control, even if their messages state exactly the opposite.

“We’ve tested words for impact,” says SCE’s Devore. “We thought ‘control’ was a distinct word customers would like. But in our polling and focus groups it had a double meaning. So instead, we talk about decisions. We talk about options.”

Likewise, SDG&E favors such words as “choice” and “convenience” in its systematic approach to communicating about its smart meter rollout ( See “90 Days to Pave the Way” ).

Euphemisms, of course, are nothing new to marketing professionals, who practice the art and science of persuasion. If the science involves coming up with the right message, then the art is finding the words that get it across with the least friction. The good news for utilities is that other industries have already paved the way for overcoming customers’ reflexive skepticism and aversion to change.

“People are comfortable now with online financial transactions,” Devore says. “It will take a little while for them to get to that level of comfort with this new utility relationship.”

Comfort Zone

Making customers comfortable means addressing their questions and concerns in a forthright way—even if they might be technically ridiculous.

“If you dodge tough questions, it’ll be a nightmare,” Reguly says. “RF is getting a lot of press right now—the radio frequency effects of smart meters—and customers are opting out because of it. There’s no scientific basis behind these concerns. So we really need to get the facts out there, because this issue could derail the smart grid development process.”

Privacy and security concerns are similarly unfounded, but they occupy the minds of consumers more than rate cases ever will. So along with control and choice, companies have to stress that smart meters are tested, safe, secure and benign. And there’s no overstating the need for a constant delivery of these simple messages. Like political talking points, if people hear them over and over again, eventually they’ll come to accept them.

But in the end, if utilities want to engage consumers as true partners, they have to start the process by treating them as partners.

“We’ve had to develop a much more open, honest, and transparent relationship with our customers than we’ve had in the past,” Reguly says. “That’s where other utilities have failed. They’ve seen this as something they can do in stealth. I firmly disagree. You need to be out front with your customers.”

Eventually—and sooner than later—those customers will want an answer to a question any true partner would insist on asking: “Why?” On this question in particular, utilities struggle against the urge to unleash a technical torrent. Instead, they need to communicate a thoughtful but meaningful response.

“Why do things have to change? That’s what it boils down to for people who have concerns about smart meters,” says Wolf. “The answer might be