Utilities – developing the customer relationship

Agility, automation and trust are seen as key for utilities to build customer relationships.
Published: Fri 03 Nov 2017

Since the start of the era of large scale smart metering, arguably the most widely touted piece of advice for utilities is the need to engage consumers to move beyond the ‘bill at the end of the month’ as the sole point of contact.

And arguably the most debated issue is how utilities could or should be developing their customer engagements, with everyone from behavioural to industry experts offering their input.

Initially smart meters were marketed to customers as offering energy savings, but experience soon showed that these were at best limited. Moreover to achieve them, consumers were required constantly to monitor their consumption on an in-home display and to actively adjust their appliance usage.

While the in-home display has evolved in sophistication, in some cases becoming a form of control hub – think of Nest for example – and is supplemented, or has been replaced, by readily accessed online functionalities, the understanding has grown that consumption data and the associated information that can be drawn from it can itself provide a key form of engagement for the utility.

Vattenfall shows how

An example of a utility that has followed this path is Vattenfall.

In an interview with Engerati, Annika Viklund, Senior Vice President of Sweden’s Vattenfall Distribution, describes how smart metering is creating “transparency” and “trust” as enablers for customer engagement.

“We have found that the more services and tools we have offered to customers, the more engaged they have become,” Viklund says. “Our experience is that to be successful companies needs to be transparent and to earn trust from customers.”


Annika Viklund, Senior Vice President of Swedens Vattenfall Distribution, talks about how the distribution system operator is gearing up to deploy its second generation smart meters. Viklund reflects on how smart meters have helped Vattenfall to learn about data and become customer centric.

Looking towards the next generation of smart metering in Sweden, Viklund says that it will be geared towards the emergence of prosumers and gathering of data to provide the “customer experience.”

As an example of what that means, she cites fixing an outage at the customer’s summer house without them being aware it has occurred.

“We need to get not only all the data we can but accurate data to provide us with the proactivity we need to have.”

Advice from telecoms

As utilities grapple with their customer engagement, a potential source of inspiration may be found in the telecoms industry, given its similarities with the changes it has gone through in the shift to mobile to the energy sector.

Many of the players are new entrants or spinoffs from incumbents, rather than the incumbents themselves, which tend to be more monolithic and slower to adapt to the changing circumstances.

“From our evaluation of other industries, we found that disruption favours the new entrants,” says Caitlin Aburrow, Director Product Marketing and Strategy at Oracle.

“Change necessitates agility and in telecoms the incumbents didn’t have the agility to keep up.”

On top of agility, Aburrow adds a further attribute, automation, which along with engagement are key for a customer centric organisation.

“Agility is key but to get to that agility we need the automation and engagement. And these will enable that balance between the reliability of services and agility to explore new services.”

Caitlin Aburrow, Director of Product Marketing & Strategy at Oracle, discusses the opportunity for utilities to thrive in an environment of disruption and how utilities can shift to greater customer centricity via engagement, automation and agility. 

Utility customer satisfaction

As an example, Aburrow mentions Green Mountain Power in Vermont, which instituted a automated programme to enroll customers in a heat pump rental opportunity for winter heating to avoid the high bills normally associated with heating at that time of year.

“Green Mountain Power used automation to bring a solution to a huge challenge for their customers,” she says.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Green Mountain Power is rated highly by its customers, ranking second among mid-size utilities in the eastern United States in market research company JD Power’s latest annual study.

Indeed, that study demonstrates the high level of customer satisfaction that utilities can achieve, with the average 2017 rating for US utilities of 719 out of 1,000.

While we don’t (as yet) have a JD Power or equivalent rating in Europe, as utilities such as Vattenfall show there are many that are working hard to build relationships with customers and  overall the level of satisfaction is likely to be higher than stories in the popular press would have one believe.