Harnessing mobile for utility customer engagement

Tendril’s new MyHome mobile app is designed to offer a personalized and unified customer engagement experience.
Published: Mon 17 Oct 2016

The concept of customer engagement has been challenging utilities for the better part of a decade. The growth of smart meters, the emergence of competitive markets and latterly the changing energy system have all led to efforts by energy providers to foster deeper engagement with consumers.

Experts have been brought in from other fields, such as psychology, and technologies have been developed, such as in-home monitors and web-based portals. Despite these important advances, customer engagement is still often ‘hit or miss’, and limited to occasional contacts or encompassing a mass of material that is not necessarily of relevance to the recipient.

With the mobile space rapidly evolving, could mobile be the ‘killer app’ for customer engagement?

Why mobile matters

Mobile is the most rapidly adopted consumer technology in history. 91% of adults have their mobile device within arm’s reach 24/7 and there are close to 30 billion mobile ‘moments’ each day.

No longer a trend, mobile is transforming every aspect of life from how individuals interact with one another to how they source information and how they purchase and pay for products and services. [Engerati-Mobile brings utility services to 2 million underserved] And almost all this activity is app-based, with some 90% of ‘mobile time’ spent in device applications and just 10% in the standard web browsers, according to Flurry Analytics.

Naturally the telcos have been at the forefront of this activity, but so have operations such as banks – which have long ‘digitized’ money in the form of cards – airlines and entertainment providers. Speed, convenience and comfort, and in some parts of the world access alone in the absence of other infrastructure, are among benefits for users. The companies have also gained benefits such as reduction in operating costs and improved customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

Digitalization for utilities

Although no laggard to the digital era for their operations, in general utilities have been slower to advance digitally on the customer facing side of the business, and especially at the mobile level. In North America for example, few energy providers have implemented mobile applications and those that have provide limited information and services. The applications tend to operate as re-sized web pages that lend themselves to disjointed, difficult navigation. They also usually focus on one specific function, such as bill pay. Customers have to go elsewhere to obtain for example outage notifications or energy efficiency information.

This points to a significant unexploited potential for utilities. Indicative is Accenture’s ‘New Energy Consumer 2016’ study, which found that digital users are more trusting of and more satisfied with their energy provider and more likely to recommend it. Moreover, consumers, and millennials in particular, want deeper engagement with their energy provider. [Engerati-What millennials are telling us]

MyHome app

Enter Tendril with the new MyHome mobile app, which was launched in June, drawing on over a decade of experience in delivering customer engagement tools to utilities.

“We want to reach customers where they are and that is on their mobiles,” Devren Hobbs, Tendril senior product manager, told Engerati in an interview, outlining the background to MyHome. “Our aim has been to offer a unified experience that sits in the palm of the consumer’s hand.”

‘Unified’ in this context means that the customer needs only the single app for all their informational and interaction needs with their utility, from day to day energy saving tips to monthly bill notifications and payments to occasional alerts of outages.

“It integrates the Tendril platform with understandings we have gathered from behavioural science and energy intelligence about how people think about and use energy, along with the other channels such as websites and marketing materials that the utility is already invested in,” she says.

David Tuohy, SVP and GM Europe, Tendril, comments that during the development a good deal of time was spent evaluating apps from other sectors such as banking and the airlines to determine the optimum customer experience. “If it works for those sectors and is what consumers are used to, then why should it be different for utilities?” he asks.

The outcome is a highly personalised experience that is driven on a ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’ basis. “Sharing information is far more effective for engagement than simply building a website and expecting visitors to come to it. But all the information has to be relevant to the particular user and it has to be the right information or for example the right product or offer at the right time.”

He also notes that while the basis for customer engagement varies between regions, for example between North America and Europe, the app concept and architecture is equally applicable in both and indeed in other regions.

MyHome customer journey

My Home is built around two modules – ‘Home Profile’, which incorporates the characteristics of the home, and ‘Energy ID’, which incorporates information about the behavioural characteristics of those within the home.

“The combination of those two together gives the power to personalize the experience,” says Tuohy. “For the user, the Home Profile is pre-populated so they can start engaging by validating the physical characteristics of their home. The EnergyID is more about their personal preferences so they need to fill this in themselves, but it is not just another questionnaire. Our behavioural scientists developed something really engaging. And the more they engage, the more accurate the information becomes and the more meaningful the engagement.”

Hobbs explains that from the utility’s perspective, MyHome is completely customizable in terms of both the functionalities that it offers and the look and feel. “We want it to be dynamic so tips and programmes can be added in or left out,” she says. “And we would take a backseat to the utility’s brand and the utility can choose the name and app icon and so on.”

Currently MyHome is being piloted at two US utilities – Duke Energy, with whom Tendril has had a long relation providing energy reports for customers, and Indiana Michigan Power (part of the American Electric Power group). The pilots run to the end of the year but experiences so far have been “very positive,” she says.

There are also plans to introduce MyHome in Europe and as a first step, much of the technology – but not within the format of the app – will be deployed in a large customer engagement programme with Engie in Italy. Initially the offering will be a mobile first experience based around a portal solution and email home energy reports with the aim to reduce customer churn, but in the next phase, this could become app-based.

Looking ahead, Tuohy says that in November an additional energy management module will be launched offering users the ability to control smart thermostats. “MyHome is device agnostic so it can be used for any thermostat, whether recommended by the utility or bought over the counter by the homeowner. Introducing this option gives utilities another link to the customer and combined with tariff and smart meter data, another option to provide relevant information and thus tighten the relationship.”

In due course also, this new module will be built out to encompass other primary energy technologies, such as PV generation, storage and electric vehicle charging.

Utility mobile experience

For utilities that are planning to launch an app, Hobbs advises they should start by setting out the priorities and goals of what they want to achieve with a mobile experience and to look at products such as MyHome rather than build out from scratch. “The technology is there and with its customizability, the utility can get a head-start.”

Typically, a full utility rollout might take from 3 to 6 months, but it is also possible to start with limited functionalities and to add to them over time. However, she stresses that from day one, the user experience must be flawless and seamless. Even a bad app download experience can influence the consumer perception and use of the app, and ultimately the utility, customer relationship.

“With MyHome utilities can get to market more quickly with a customizable solution that can also incorporate their existing resources – and that is part of our secret sauce.”

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