Innovative ideas for every utility

How can utilities engage customers? The Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative has some good ideas

Stephen Hill
Sr. Content Development Specialist

The Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) is well known for its advocacy of utility customers. In May the SECC released its white paper, “Identifying and Meeting Consumer Needs.”

The results from four consumer surveys conducted during 2019 gave the SECC a clearer picture of utility customer needs, and expectations. They boiled these down to five basic themes:

1.    Consumers are more ready than ever to engage on energy
2.    Segmentation remains essential in a digital world
3.    Energy engagement is fundamentally a journey for both society and individuals
4.    Consumer expectations are shaping the future
5.    Education remains a clear, strategic opportunity to increase energy engagement

We discussed customer engagement philosophy with Nathan Shannon, deputy director of the SECC, recently.

How is customer engagement expanding in regard to utilities?

Shannon: The SECC has done consumer research for 10 years, learning how customers want to engage with their utility. We’ve seen a spike recently in engaged customers in many types of programs, and channels. We also see an increase in demographic engagement, particularly by millennials, who are more active online, and through multiple channels. This demographic is wanting to increase both efficiency and sustainability.

People are looking at their online experience and comparing that to their utility. And, utilities are starting to see the need to be proactive. As a result, utilities have started hiring people from outside industries that are adept at this new level of customer engagement. There’s a whole new customer branding side of utilities that is coming to engage customers.

What do utilities risk by not seeking customer engagement? Is it a business imperative?

Shannon: There is definite risk for a utility that fails to engage their customers. Many customers would switch providers if they had an available choice, and our research indicates that millennials would jump ship faster than most other customers, if they could. When you realize that there are other companies outside of the utility industry that are trying to reach customers through DER programs (distributed energy resources), then it becomes critical that utilities communicate and engage their own customers.

These outside companies have their eye on energy customers, and they have many channels to access them. It’s critical that utilities strive to have higher customer satisfaction, and engagement is an important part in making more satisfied customers.

In the white paper you talk about engagement as a journey. In what way is customer engagement a journey?

Shannon: The journey customers and utilities take has to show that the values align for both sides. All customers have different ideas about what they desire from their utility. Showing how to save dollars on a bill is not always the most important thing to a customer. We’re seeing other areas climb up in importance, such as sustainability, environmental concerns, and societal issues. Many customers want to know how a utility is addressing these issues.

While everyone likes to save money, and energy, there are customers who are willing to pay extra to know that their power is generated from a sustainable, or renewable source. When customers see that the utility’s values are in step with their own, it builds a higher level of trust, and a stronger relationship.

Education and trust is a key topic in your report. Can utilities maintain confidence with customers as they raise the engagement level?

Shannon: Yes. Our research shows that when a customer interacts with a utility, even in a small program, that customer is twice as likely to enroll in the next program from the utility. Customers still see their utility as a trusted advisor on energy issues, and utilities can build on that. The more you educate a customer, the more willing they are to put their trust in you.

It’s also important that a utility has the trust of its customers as the industry become more digitalized. More data than ever is collected from customers, and they rightly have concerns about their data and privacy. However, if a customer is getting a benefit, most are willing to share their data. However, it’s important to show the benefit, such as a peak time savings plan.

What’s the future of customer engagement?

Shannon: In the near term, we’re going to see increased engagement. There will be more call center activity, people seeking bill assistance, and more ways to lower their bill. Customers also expect social engagement from their utility, more community involvement, and a different perspective from utilities than expected in the past. It’s going to be a complex, and interesting time for utilities, and customers.

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