With change comes choice. It’s affecting customers significantly, but it may be changing the large utility even more.
That’s one way that Michael Weinstein views his 20 years of utility service. He remembers when electric utility customers didn’t have much in the way of choice – no decision on service provider, no distributed generation, rooftop solar was not an option, nor were electric vehicles.
“Now, customers have all sorts of choices,” says Weinstein, home energy management solution line owner at American Electric Power, “and not just who their service provider is, in some jurisdictions, but also how they’re using energy.”
Weinstein recalls days when the contact between utilities and customers only involved sending and paying a monthly bill, and both sides seemed content. Fast forward 20 years, and Weinstein counts off a number of ways and reasons that customers are communicating with their utility.
“Customers expect to be able to go to a website and access information about their account,” says Weinstein. “They expect the ability to use a mobile device to interact with the utility, they expect the ability to use a voice assistant, and we’re happy to bring these solutions to them.”
The tipping point for these customer choices, and the demands from customers, is the digitization of the electric industry. Utilities have huge amounts of information about customer behavior, and the opportunity to affect that behavior.
“The most exciting transformation at AEP is the embrace of big data,” says Weinstein. “And we can take that information through analytics and turn it into actionable tips that help customers manage their energy usage.”
Embracing data affects more than the utility – customers have fueled the rise of the digital age, and now are turning their devices toward the utility. The rise of data from a myriad of devices creates an awareness with the customer, followed by a demand for information from that same customer. It’s this two-way communication that’s transforming many of the utilities owned by AEP.
“Customers want things that are personalized, and specifically actionable to themselves,” says Weinstein. “You can’t treat your customer base monolithically.”
But large utilities were never built to address the individual concerns of residential customers. The job before digitization was: deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity; measure the kilowatt hours and send a bill at the end of the month. That simple equation is not enough to meet customers’ expectations in today’s market.
“It’s been a big realization for utilities that customers don’t speak kilowatt hours – they speak dollars and cents,” says Weinstein. “And another segment wants environmental information, so we talk to them about saving emissions rather than kilowatt hours.”
Learning to address individual customer requests takes some effort from a large utility. And to do this across multiple states and numerous regulatory environments demands a lot of changes in the business processes, but that’s exactly what AEP has undertaken. It’s change management not only across different operating utilities, but different segments within each utility.
“Our focus was on the operating utilities, which are closest to our customers. With their representation, and input from our energy efficiency programs, our customer service groups, and our grid modernization groups, we worked toward making a more holistic customer experience program,” says Weinstein.
All of these changes at AEP utilities, with the customer’s experience in mind, serve a long-term purpose: to ensure that customer’s stay engaged and satisfied with their utility experience. AEP understands that third-party companies are reaching out to customers for edge-of-grid business opportunities.
“If we do this right, customers will continue to come back and interact with the utility,” says Weinstein about the changes underway at AEP.
“That engagement will help customers manage energy better, thus leading to energy savings, and leading them to understand that we’re working with them to save dollars and cents.”
Hear Michael Weinstein talk about AEP’s boundless energy in this short video (2.5 min.).
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