J.D. Powers just released its 2010 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study and notably, utilities are doing better. According to the survey of 85,000 customers, bills have reduced by 5% and reported outages by 8%. Communication seems to be the key according to study, as customers with outages are much more satisfied when the utility communicates well about status of restoration. Surprisingly, though, only one in six customers are aware of their utilities smart grid efforts
Everyone agrees that better education of customers might have mitigated the customer backlash that utilities are facing in California and Texas. Perhaps this is part, but certainly not all, of what prompted the Maryland Public Service Commission to deny BG&E's smart grid proposal, even though the company has been approved for ARRA funding. [Note: actually, the major objections by the PSC were to mandatory time-of-use pricing and capitalization in the business plan.] A quick look at BG&E's education plan filed with the Commission yesterday has some good elements, although may be missing some obvious messaging opportunities like the IVR system:
- Pre-installation communications. Prior to installation there will be communications to the customer on the value of smart metering to them. Channels with be mass media and website communications, blogs, twitter, facebook and mobile demos. BG&E references Duke's Envison Smart Energy as an example.
- Installation communications. Touch points with customer at installation include an introductory letter a month ahead of installation, coordination of appointments with customers where needed, leave-behind information, automated appointment reminders, customer follow-up.
- Post-installation communications.
- Web portal for customers including usage and bill presentment, disaggregated bills, and energy budgeting, savings summaries, environmental impact, and benchmarking to others.
- Multi-channel communication (event notification) with customers who have opted for peak pricing programs based on customer preference – via e-mail, phone, television announcements, website, text messaging
- Education of utility personnel (even retires) to the benefits of smart grid through letters, video messaging, "town hall" meetings of employees, fact cards for personnel without access to computers
- Segment specific messaging on benefits of dynamic pricing – will be targeted to "bargain hunters", "comfort lovers", "privacy resisters", "green altruists", and "digital control enthusiasts".
The key will be to get customers to understand from the very beginning even before a truck rolls to make the installation: "What's in it for me?" And that is best done through targeted messaging to customers based on customer segmentation and preferred method of communication (cell, e-mail, social networking, mail, etc.) That means segmentation beyond the usual residential, multi-family, etc. similar to the segments that BGE is positing for peak pricing event communications (see above). However, customer relationship management (CRM) at utilities is typically CRM-lite which is a layer over the Customer Infomration System (CIS). CRM-lite is developed for incoming communications for inquiry, rather than out-going communications for sales and marketing. However, there are some utilities that have more robust CRM applications (Oracle and SAP both offer them), including customer segmentation and campaign management. Utilities that are planning to roll out smart meters soon don't have time to implement robust CRM unless they have a CIS provider that offers it and can implement quickly. Utilities may need to rely on software as a service (Saas) or a business process outsourcer to manage the ongoing - and it will be ongoing - campaign.
Once the meters are installed, it is critical to get customers engaged as soon as possible to demonstrate the value of the meter. That may take some hand holding and personal touches from Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). Expect longer call durations. Our research shows that the amount of customer contact and call duraction goes up immediately after installation of smart meters, so CSRs will need to be trained in how to guide customers through the web portal. There may also have to be some pro-active communications, as well as responding to customer questions. All this will take concerted efforts by marketing and IT in partnership, because customers will expect to receive communications via their preferred communication channel and somehow that has to be tracked. So this would support demonstrating how customers can reduce bills through monitoring consumption and taking action to conserve.
The next step is to use that information to get the customer into utility sponsored programs. These may be energy efficiency, where savings are general, but still important to the utility and to the customer's wallet in the long run. Why not put a link in the web portal that will lead customers to online enrollment in programs that they might qualify for? Seems simple, but for many utilities I've talked to, it seems like there are barriers to getting this done.
Then there's enrollment in some type of time-based pricing program. BG&E will need to sell hard, as in their most recent proposal the company has withdrawn mandatory time-of-use and replaced it with voluntary at the behest of the Commission. Customers will need some type of online calculator to help them understand how they will benefit. This could appeal too, to the gaming set or for customers who are active day traders.
Once a customer is signed up for a program, such as demand response (DR - BG&E calls this peak pricing), there's more interaction associated with each event. The customer needs to be notified of the event, if they are not set up for an automated response. And participation needs to be verified through analysis of the smart meter data. Smart meter data returns through the AMI to the MDM and then to CIS for credit to the bill, in most cases. For DR events, why not use the same infrastructure as the utility has built for outage restoration notification and follow-up? Many utilities have set up automated call backs to check on restoration with customers that can segment the call backs by feeder and location which would be perfect for calling events in a capacity constrained area.