He’s one of America’s leading communications experts. This is his message for utilities.

We recently sat down with one of America’s leading public opinion experts, Frank Luntz, to discuss what today’s energy consumers expect from their utility.

Our conversation was part of an ongoing series profiling a range of pioneering utility leaders, behavioral scientists, and messaging experts — many of whom will be taking the stage next month in Miami at our annual utility innovation summit, PowerUp. I

n an interview, Luntz offered several key insights about how utilities can better connect with their customers. Here’s what he had to share.

Opower: As a communications strategist, one of your mantras is “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” Can you explain this a bit and share an example?

Frank Luntz: Most companies focus on their language without paying attention to how customers hear it. So, they’ll say things that are technologically advanced, intellectually accurate, or financially compelling. But, it will have no resonance to how their consumers relate to them on a day-to-day basis. They’re too often complicated, complex, and confusing. So, a company that talks about innovation, for example, doesn’t realize that unless there’s a financial benefit to the customer — something real that their customers can see and feel everyday like simplifying their bill or their use of electricity — it won’t matter. It won’t resonate. Companies too often think about what they do rather than what their customer does.

You’ve done interesting research on what today’s consumers want to hear and see from their energy providers. What have you discovered?

FL: Three important findings. Number one, consumers dislike the feeling that they have no choice in energy provider. They still feel it’s a monopoly and it frustrates them. Americans want choices, they want options.

"It shocks me every day when I see that one out of five Americans think electricity comes from a light switch. I used to laugh at that, now it makes me cry."

Second, they don’t really understand what companies do to create electricity. It shocks me everyday when I see that one out of five Americans think electricity comes from the light switch. I used to laugh at that, now it makes me cry. And, third, consumers don’t always have a clear perspective on the full benefits and costs of energy efficiency. The benefits are profound. They want and need better communications from their utility providers in order to make efficiency a cost-effective reality.

Opower data analysis has found that Americans’ motivation to save energy transcends political affiliation. In your own polling of energy consumers, have you observed any unifying similarities across political parties?

FL: Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, you want America to be energy self-sufficient and energy independent. You want your energy made right here in America, by American companies, with American employees. We want to be better and we want our energy companies to be better than those across the globe.

A study last year reported that only 37% of consumers currently have a high level of “trust” in their utility company. Many utilities are making huge progress in this area, but others are still lagging. From a communications perspective, how can energy providers do better on connecting with their customers?

FL: Some of them already have. And that 37% is actually higher today than it was five years ago. Energy companies that speak in the language of consumers are far more likely to be trusted than those who don’t. Companies that understand what their customers are experiencing every day. How they’re using their electricity to power their lives. And how too many people are struggling in today’s economy.

"Energy companies that have a diversity of tools, techniques, and supply are more respected than those that don’t."

Energy companies that have a diversity of tools, techniques, and supply are more respected than those that don’t — and the ones who can clearly articulate the benefits to their companies are even more trusted. And energy companies that help their consumers be more efficient — which also makes them more effective — is a surefire way to improve your reputation.

You’ll be giving a joint keynote presentation at PowerUp 2015 with fellow Opower Advisory Board member Jim Messina — a former Obama campaign strategist. Your political views are diametrically opposed. Can you tolerate each other? What have you learned from one another?

FL: I’m going to surprise you with this answer. Republicans are more likely to hire Democrats because they feel the need to have a bipartisan approach. Democrats are less likely to feel that way, which is why it is somewhat rare to see Republicans working on what is perceived to be a Democratic issue. That said, the Obama campaign is the single most talented group of people I have ever seen in my political career. The only campaign that comes close is Ronald Reagan in 1980.

And Jim Messina is absolutely the best in his field. I remember listening to him talk at last year’s conference and taking out a notepad and scribbling lines and ideas as I listened to him talk. I can learn more from him in five minutes than I learn from most people in many hours.

You advise speakers and presenters to boil down their message. They should be able to say, “If there’s one thing you remember about this presentation, it’s this:_____.” If there’s one thing you want us to remember about your remarks here, what is it?

FL: It’s all about the consumer. It’s all about their words, their needs, their wants, their fears, their life, their families, their homes, and their businesses. It’s all about them. Businesses need to remember that to be successful.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

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