When I took this job three years ago, I posed the question, "Price or Service?" in the title of my first frontlines column.I suggested that natural gas utilities appeared willing to sell on price, but not electrics. The CEOs all claim that electricity has become a commodity. But I'll bet the franchise that electric utilities haven't yet figured out whether they are selling electrons (a commodity) or comfort and peace of find (a niche service). But then they claim that the key to competition lies in getting close to their customers.
Here it is, 1997, sixty-five columns later, and I'm writing the "Price or Service?" piece all over again.
If energy is a commodity, then all customer value comes from price, period. Anything else is a distraction. But if electricity is a service--a product that aspires to consumer desires, no matter how peculiar--then all this worry about low costs seems misplaced.
At the Press Conference
I'll remember June 24 as the date of one of the most peculiar press conferences I've ever attended. UtiliCorp United had invited the utility trade press to the unveiling of its new venture, EnergyOne L.L.C. When the meeting ended, and we listened to the answers given to all our questions, a strange silence ensured. We were perplexed--stunned, really.
From my conversations with others heading down the elevators after the press conference, a consensus developed. None of us could figure out what EnergyOne was really about. It just didn't make sense. It seemed to us that EnergyOne was giving away control of its brand name, violating a cardinal rule of marketing.