Utilities work toward a more mature relationship with customers.
Steven Andersen is Fortnightly’s contributing editor, based in New York.
The observation that utilities don’t excel at consumer engagement is getting to be an old chestnut. It’s all too easy to paint them as being behind the times, out of touch, stodgy even. That might be true in many ways, of course, but is it only half the picture? What if the Customer—that mythical character who’s supposedly always right—isn’t exactly playing on the level? What it the customer is in fact a little bit crazy?
Customers demand perfection when it comes to cost and reliability. Beyond that, they don’t want to know much. They respect utilities as the authority on electrons, but they’re highly suspicious of the profit motive. Any impact on their pocketbook is blamed on the greedy fat cats on Wall Street, not on that new plasma TV in the living room.
“They’re schizophrenic and they don’t really want to be engaged,” says Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising firm that specializes in efficiency and renewable energy marketing. “What Americans want from their utility is low cost, reliable power. They see it as an inalienable right, and if the utility tries to charge more money for it, they scream and yell.”
Shelton’s firm conducts a survey on perceptions of energy efficient home improvements, as well as incentives and billing programs. The 2011 survey data, released in February, demonstrates a stunning level of cognitive dissonance.