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What does today's electricity consumer want?

Does anyone remember that old saying, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth"?

The electric utility industry received that gift horse back in 2009 via American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, vaulting grid modernization into much higher general public awareness. 

However, as it turns out, that gift horse has since needed some serious equine dentistry.

Our industry is currently facing a broad spectrum of opportunities as well as a host of challenges. Research and analysis is ongoing to determine how best to move forward-both for utilities and for their vendor partners--as technology advances and regulators, elected officials and electricity consumers alike lurch forward in fits and starts like new dance partners still learning the steps.

It's time for us to stop assuming we know what the consumer wants, and is willing to do to save energy, and to start listening to what they want, and are willing to do. To thoroughly mix my metaphors, we've got to stop pushing them across the dance floor. Utilities, by and large, have been dancing these steps for a decade. Our consumers have just walked in the ballroom door.

Yesterday, Intelligent Utility editors interviewed Greg Guthridge, global managing director of Accenture's Retail and Business Services for Utilities group, about the just-released second installment in the company's multi-year research program, "Revealing the Values of the New Energy Consumer." (My colleague Phil Carson covered last year's research results with Guthridge in "Consumer Behavior and Electrical Usage.")

In the report's foreword, Guthridge talks about this new dance: "As more consumers gain access to smart in-home technologies, utilities have the opportunity to offer new, value-added products and services in both regulated and competitive markets. However, these opportunities will likely attract new market players and may lead to industry convergence. Utilities that embrace the perceptions and behaviors of their consumers will ultimately generate the most value in the evolving energy marketplace."

Guthridge gave us a high-level overview of this year's research findings, which he broke down into four key findings. The research covers 18 countries (one more than last year's report), with a survey sample size of just over 9,000 respondents.

Key finding #1: "While consumers regard their utilities as the primary provider for energy-related products and services, dynamic business models are emerging." Specifically, Guthridge told us, while utilities are still the default incumbent, "one quarter of customers (indicated they) would buy their simple electric service from someone other than their utility," if given the option.

There's a value-add opportunity for utilities here, as well: 73 percent of consumers surveyed indicated they would consider buying in-home products and services from non-traditional providers. Were utilities to pair up with a white-label services provider, it could be a win-win for both.

Key finding #2: "Price is the pivotal factor in the acceptance of electricity management programs, but price alone will not drive adoption." While 83 percent of the global population in the survey said the No. 1 impact for them was the cost the new service would add to their utility bills, 73 percent indicated that a utility loyalty program also ranked very high in perceived value. Last year's North American research clearly pointed to a focus on in-home displays as a high value-add, but Guthridge said this year the trend is moving to more set-it-and-forget-it convenience. There's a gender difference here, as well. "Men tend to focus on technology channels, while women are more focused on solutions that are intuitive and easy to use across the family," he said.

Key finding #3: "A wide array of consumer preferences is driving the need for differentiated propositions and experiences." For utilities, this means "you can't have a single program or a single pricing structure that will appeal to the whole breadth and depth of residential customers, especially in the U.S.," Guthridge said. Additionally, "more than 60 percent of the customer base does not really want heavy, hands-on management of their energy savings...Tailoring the programs, products and channels to match the (customer) segments is most important."

Key finding #4: "Consumers will respond to programs that consider their full spectrum of values and preferences." They want programs that are easy to use, simple and convenient, and with some "uniqueness" or customization to fit their own personal needs.

What does this all mean? Stay tuned! Tomorrow, Phil Carson will cover the Accenture study's insights for utilities.

Kate Rowland
Intelligent Utility magazine
Twitter: @katerowland2

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