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How Utilities Are Optimizing Consumer Engagement Today

Krishnadas Chandrasekharan - Dreamstime

Consumer engagement has increasingly taken center stage for electricity providers in recent years. Many utilities have utilized best practices in customer engagement and experience from other industries, listened to the needs of their customers and developed innovative tools to meet these needs.

As a result, consumers today have access to more programs and services to manage their home energy usage and more ways to interact with their utilities than ever before. But, of these efforts, which are really connecting with consumers and meeting their needs?

The Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) recently published a white paper, “Optimizing Consumer Engagement”, that reviewed customer programs, services and strategies from North American electricity providers, including Con Edison, Austin Energy, NB Power, Ameren Illinois and many others. The paper sought to identify offerings in the field today that align closely with the takeaways on consumer needs and wants from SECC’s “2019 State of the Consumer” report.

The “2019 State of the Consumer” report is a meta-analysis of SECC’s 2018 consumer research and, as such, incorporates data from over 5,500 total survey respondents. From these survey responses, SECC developed a comprehensive picture of the behaviors, attitudes and motivations of residential energy customers today, and these findings are distilled into five key takeaways what electricity providers can do to better serve today’s consumers.

For each key takeaway, the new white paper highlights multiple examples of programs, strategies and/or services that fulfill the identified consumer needs. Here are several notable examples highlighted in the paper, arranged by theme:

1. Keep up with the consumer-facing technology from other industries.

For most consumers today, technology is a central part of their lives. While a small minority may still prefer a paper bill, others are looking for engaging, digital experiences that mimic those they get from companies like Amazon, Lyft or their financial institutions.

Electricity providers are meeting this consumer need in a few notable ways. Reliant, a retail electricity provider in Texas, partnered with Google and Nest to offer an innovative Speak & Save rate plan that includes a free smart thermostat and Google Home device. Customers can use voice commands to control the thermostat and plan to heat and cool their homes when electricity costs are lower. Smart speakers are a rapidly growing consumer technology, and Reliant’s integration with a rate plan is on the cutting-edge of utility offerings today.

While Reliant’s Speak & Save program is likely to be popular with tech-savvy early adopters, Con Edison, the electricity and natural gas provider for all of New York City and one neighboring county, is harnessing technology for a different reason – to help the often hard-to-reach lower-income consumers reduce their energy-related expenses. Con Edison partnered with an app for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to supply energy efficiency tips and rebates. App users can also order a free Wi-Fi device that will allow them to control their window A/C unit through their smartphone, giving them greater control and helping them better manage their energy usage.

2. Present return-on-investment information in a meaningful, actionable way.

Saving money is one of consumers’ top concerns related to energy, according to SECC’s research, and residential customers express a strong design for clear information on the financial benefits they stand to gain by participating in a program and/or service. By helping consumers understand how they personally stand to benefit (relative to their habits and energy usage), electricity providers can drive engagement.

When NB Power, an electricity provider to over 750,000 residents in New Brunswick, Canada, revamped its energy efficiency portfolio, engagement was the provider's guiding principle. The company launched several new programs to fit customer segments and emphasized a personalized approach in all marketing elements. NB Power also highlighted customer stories following energy-efficient upgrades, focusing on the estimated return-on-investment for the homeowners and the NB Power financial incentives used for the upgrades. This approach has had a positive impact for customers; in 2018, NB Power customers saved approximately 18 GWh, totaling $1,965,412.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), an electric and natural gas provider for nearly 16 million customers in California, utilized a more technology-based approach to showcase return-on-investment information. Through a partnership with Enervee, PG&E launched an online marketplace that helps consumers select the most energy-efficient products for their needs. For example, if a customer is looking for a new refrigerator, the website will show the product’s price and its estimated energy usage, allowing users to easily see which will save them money over the appliance’s lifetime. Since its launch in 2015, PG&E Marketplace has helped shoppers save between 158.7 and 434.6 GWh of electricity and 8,221,273 to 22,576,096 therms of natural gas. For each PG&E Marketplace shopper, this translates into an average lifetime savings of up to $300.

3. Employ strategies to get the most engaged consumers to take the next step.

SECC’s research has found that consumers who are already engaged are also more interested in new ways to save and be more energy efficient, and this is true for both residential and SMB customers. Electricity providers can nurture relationships with these empowered consumers via personalized, timely recommendations of the next steps they can take to be more energy efficient.

To help determine which products and services it should develop to meet evolving consumer needs, Entergy, an IOU serving nearly three million customers in four states, turned to its customer data. Beginning in 2016, the utility started three new organizations focused on customer analytics, products and services, and customer product engineering, respectively. Entergy used customer analytics to gain a better understanding of what customers wanted from their electricity provider. Then, they determined the impact of a product offering, relating to factors like adoption rates, environmental benefits, load curve reduction and customer satisfaction. This analytics-driven effort led to the creation of a range of product and service options for payment, energy efficiency and distributed energy resources.

Education is a big part of helping interested and engaged consumers find ways to continue energy management activities. Austin Energy, a municipal utility which serves the city of Austin and parts of the surrounding county, developed a program to assist homeowners interested in rooftop solar. To help consumers navigate the myriad choices offered by photovoltaic (PV) installers, Austin Energy developed the Solar Education incentive program, which requires the customer to participate in a training course that covers a variety of topics related to costs, options and expectations for solar deployments. Once the course is complete, the consumer takes a short exam and receives a $2,500 incentive toward a qualified PV installation.

Conclusion: Focus on consumer needs to drive engagement

Consumers’ needs today are disparate, but there are some notable commonalities. For example, all consumers are universally concerned with costs, and personalized offers and communications – especially if they contain return-on-investment information –  are more likely to be positively received by consumers. By listening to consumers’ specific needs and wants (through data, consumer segmentation, focus groups and other methods), electricity providers can successfully move their customers along the continuum of engagement and increase customer satisfaction. The examples highlighted above are just some of the ways that electricity providers are responding to consumers’ expectations to improve program and service offerings.

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