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Smart Coaching

Customers won’t join the team unless utilities make it worthwhile.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2011

will we turn our focus away from customers because we don’t know how to engage them, or how to convert engagement into value?

Managing Expectations

Last month, at a hotel in Washington, D.C., Fortnightly and SmartEnergyIP presented an event called the “Smart Grid Customer Education Symposium.” Executives from several utilities—including PEPCO, the host utility—shared their experiences with smart metering and customer engagement. While all reported mostly positive results, many held low expectations for their programs. That surprised me.

One presenter from a large investor-owned utility reported a 3-percent opt-in rate for its tiered pricing program, despite the company’s ongoing marketing and communications campaign. Another speaker, from a municipal utility, said that most customers “don’t care, and don’t want to care” about their utility service. Similarly, a recent study by the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative reported opt-in rates for some utilities’ time-of-use pricing programs were well below 1 percent. With this kind of reception, is it any wonder that utilities might give up and retreat into the engineer-friendly realm of distribution automation?

The situation reminds me of something that happened recently on the soccer field where I coach a team of middle school girls. I was having trouble getting the girls to cooperate and work together as a team, as opposed to individual players acting selfishly. That’s a common problem with 12-year old soccer players—and for that matter, players of any age. One way to address it is to reward players directly for their teamwork. So one day I promised my players they’d get ice cream treats after they showed me how well they could work together.

The team performed satisfactorily, and at the end of practice the players clamored to receive their treats. But soon they began complaining. Why did I bring Dilly Bars instead of ice cream sandwiches? I brought too many chocolate and not enough cherry. And one Dilly Bar wasn’t enough; why couldn’t they have two each?

It dawned on me then that nothing I could do would make my players happy. No matter what, some of them were determined to bring a negative attitude. I was discouraged.

Later, I was talking with one of the other coaches, and telling him about my predicament, and he said something that struck home. He said, “Coach, it’s not your job to make these players happy. Your job is to give them the information they need to become a team player.”

Building a Team

My friend’s advice could apply to the utility industry; as utilities and regulators implement the smart grid, it’s our job to give customers the information they need to become engaged consumers. But we shouldn’t view it as our job to make customers happy about paying their electric bills, no matter how smart our new technologies might be.

However, there’s a big difference between a soccer player who joined a team voluntarily, and a ratepayer who is now being asked to join a team he or she never knew existed. The key is to get serious about recruitment: to make it valuable for customers to participate.

The Smart Grid