Smart Talk with the Utility Customer

The increasing level of communication has become a significant part of the utility equation.
Published: Wed 28 May 2014

Today, the utility finds itself interacting even more with its customers. It requires a deeper level of engagement as utilities have the ability to choose from a variety of communication means. Social media is gaining in popularity when it comes to communicating with the customer and the utility has had to snap up this trend in order to keep in touch. [Read Engerati’s recent articles: Services are Adding Value to the Smart Meter and The 5 Steps Towards Effective Customer Engagement and Utilities: Focus More on Consumer Practices.]

Anytime, anywhere communications

Today's customers want communication that will suit their schedules and location-they want “anytime, anywhere” communications, explains Paul De Martini, principal of the Newport Consulting Group.

And, if utilities want their demand response programs to work and they want to reduce customer churn, they will need to tap into this without hesitation.

Newport Consulting Group put together this strategy which shows how linking the smart grid with these new social and mobile technologies can empower at least four forms of customer partnerships:
 

1. Customer Control (customer information and options)

2. Customer Context (content tailored to location and device)

3. Customer Collaboration (variety of social channels such as Twitter and Facebook)

4. Customer Co-creations ("prosumers" and "net zero" customers)

The smart grid is made up of many different elements, including a wide range of technologies, and grid modernization. There is no single business case, but there are individual components that make a lot of sense to move forward on, explains Mr De Martini.

Communicating their way to sustainable objectives

Utilities have realized that regular customer communication and contact is becoming increasingly part of the equation of how they reach sustainable objectives. This includes working towards a deeper level of engagement with customers, as well as tying into social business as a way to approach that engagement. This will involve more sophisticated communications than in the recent past, when billing inserts and web portals were seen as cutting edge, explains Mr De Martini.

However, the concept of engaging regularly and efficiently with customers is rather new for the utility industry. But, utilities will need to keep up as customers expect communications anytime and anywhere. This means that utilities need to make use of social media, and increasingly on mobile devices, which customers have shifted to fairly significantly over the past few years. Given this shift by their customers, utilities have to follow suit.

A few utilities have already started to make the shift towards a better collaboration between utilities and their customers. A few fairly recent examples in terms of collaboration include:

  • San Diego Gas and Electric – The utility shares more information with its customers and communicates to the customer ways in which they can save money on their utility bill.
  • BC Hydro (Vancouver, BC) –The utility has provided its customers with "Power Pointers" on how residences and businesses can save money and improve energy efficiency.

 

A number of utilities have been leveraging technology over the past few years, such as Opower and Tendril.

Communicating smart grid’s value

One question is how all this ties into social business. Most of the interaction with customers, aside from technical needs, will be done through social media. It will probably be a combination of a controlled system layer (machine to machine) and the piece on top, social media.

Mr De Martini points out that the utility’s focus should be on demonstrating the smart grid's value more clearly. He expands, “You can’t just look from the grid side, but have to look at the customer perspective as well. This includes coming up with really clear, transparent ways to monetize value for either side. The customer wants to see real and tangible results, savings on their energy bill or a revenue stream. That sounds simple, but in reality it's much more complicated.”

Utilities need to keep a constant watch on communication trends in order to stay in touch with customers successfully. Mr De Martini predicts that we will see at least as many disruptive technologies over the next decade as we did the previous one which brought us Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, the iPhone in 2007, Instagram in 2010 and the Nest thermostat in 2011.