Basic Rules to Engage the Consumer

The utility-customer relationship is undergoing significant change. While consumer engagement strategies are being developed, there are a few basic rules for the utility to consider.
Published: Tue 25 Feb 2014

The customer is no longer passive and is expecting more from its utility. The industry is becoming more competitive and customer churn is becoming a scary reality for most as some business models remain static. To survive (and prosper) from this change in the customer-utility relationship, utilities need to adopt an effective communication strategy for the future.

Because every utility and region has its unique needs, there is no “right way” to engage with the consumer. However, there are a few basic rules that utilities should consider when engaging with the customer. The details, and the specific strategies, must be developed step by step and each should be evaluated along the way.

Here are a few tips:

Come well-prepared and communicate regularly

Utilities should do some research before engaging with the consumer. They need to be well-prepared as this will prevent ineffective engagements and consumers will view this as unprofessional. Expectations should be clearly laid out and the benefits of a project should be communicated to the consumer throughout the project’s lifecycle. Consumers want to know what they are paying for and what personal benefits they can expect to see in the future.

Utilize all digital modes of communication

Consumers expect efficiency and convenience. In response to this, utilities should consider using all communication modes such as mobile phones, landlines, email, Internet, print media, and meters. Just by using the Internet, the utility is able to communicate via a host of social media options-Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and the utility’s own website. While social media educates customers on events, it also helps the utility to listen to what's being said publicly about its initiatives.

"We're finding that customers will communicate via the platform they're most comfortable with," Carey Sullivan, social media manager at AEP.

Keep it simple and fun

Information should be easy to access and the information itself should be simple to understand. All forms of communication should be pleasing to the eye, fun and convenient to use. The idea is to attract customer attention and in so doing, build a brand that the customer wants to be a part of.

Develop customer-centric engagement programs and complaint resolution processes

In a study of utility consumer engagement practices, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative noted that Austin Energy used direct mail, door hangers and newspaper ads to advise customers of an AMI deployment. Installation personnel notified the billing department of customers who might experience higher bills because their analog meters were running slowly. Customers could schedule the meter swap-out if the utility's first attempt failed. A "rapid response team" immediately addressed the few complaints that came about as a result.

Relay short-term benefits

Consumers often struggle to understand the long-term benefits. They generally want to see short-term benefits before they commit to being part of a project or before they buy a product. Chris Thomas, policy director, Illinois Citizens Utility Board, explains: "When you give someone a smart meter, give them an immediate opportunity to tie that information to their pocketbook. It starts to wrap their minds around the way they consume energy and the cost of that energy."

The customer is paramount

Utilities should really believe that the customer is an asset, not just a “connection point.” This is according to Alain Bollack, Director of Global Power and Utilities Centre, Ernst & Young, in an Engerati webcast, Creating a Customer-Centric Utility to Drive Value and Profit. The utility should look at ways of adding to its customers' options, and decreasing its customers' costs. By doing this, the customer will have no reason to leave the utility or the grid altogether. Trust is a major component of maintaining a healthy utility-customer relationship.

In addition, personalized messages and information will go a long way as it carries more meaning for the customer. Actions are more likely to be carried out as a result.

Really listen and respond accordingly

Really listen to your customers to understand their needs and expectations. Good examples of this include both Portland General Electric and Pepco-they conducted focus groups in advance of their smart meter program roll-outs. A third party can also be employed to carry this out. Charles Dickerson, vice president for customer care at Pepco, says that his firm used a third party for the process. He adds that it was not prohibitively expensive and he added that focus group results offer good insights, if taken in the right context.

Customer empowerment and engagement are critical to the future of the utility. Without viewing the customer as number one, the utility will lose its customers in a highly competitive industry.