18 Jul 2011

Matching smart grid apps to customer lifestyles

Written by Jim Pierobon

Among the lessons emerging from various utility pilot programs around the country where homeowners respond to dynamic pricing and demand reduction incentives is this pre-requisite: to change behavior utilities need to truly e-n-g-a-g-e their customers. And the most effective way to accomplish that is to be sure the utility has a large stockpile of customer goodwill generated by consistent and transparent communications.

Based on a growing body of data from the most ambitious utilities and their cutting-edge vendors, the challenge of engaging customers boils down to relating to customers in ways that fit with to their lifestyles, including senior citizens and low-income households. If customers “own” the transition to digital energy, they will find ways to benefit from it, according to several participants in last week’s National Town Hall Meeting on Demand Response and Smart Grid in Washington, DC.

To hear Herbert Harris, Jr., Chairman of the District of Columbia Consumers Utility Board explain it, utilities that neglect customer service “will run in a wall of hostility. You need to be able to answer the question: What is the benefit for the consumer?”

Watch Harris here explain how important a reservoir of good will is to this process here.

Southern California Edison uses these animated house -- in multiple languages -- to reach different "ethnographics."

At least one utility — Southern California Edison — designs its lifestyle products in much the way McDonald’s packages “Happy Meals.”  SCE’s marketing department, led by Director of Customer Experience and Marketing, Seth Kiner, performed “ethnographic” research on top of its traditional demographic research to crystallize the value proposition to the various segments that emerged.

Kiner said SCE has had significant success with a series of animated, house-talking “Carl and Eddy” commercials (image at left)  for their “SmartConnect” program. One of the commercials, entitled, “I got the power”, is here.

A large ad budget and really good creative cannot overcome utilities that are struggling with service-related issues not only vis a vis their customers but with their regulators. “That, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Lawrence Daniels, Assistant People’s Council for the District of Columbia at a National Town Hall communications workshop.

“You have to be honest with customers,” Daniels said. “You have to meet them (customers) where they are.”

Social networks that are in marketing tool kits for consumer services and products are making increasing sense for demand response programs. Charles Dickerson, Vice President of Customer Care at Pepco in Washington, DC, has the flexibility to try engaging customers in conversations through social media rather than one-way advertising messages.

Dickerson hopes those conversations will overcome a relatively poor customer service rating burdened by an abnormal number and severity of power outages serving Washington, DC and the close-in Maryland suburbs over the past two years.

The challenge extends to the relations with regulators man of whom are extremely risk-adverse. There is a fear, according to DC Public Service Commissioner Rick Morgan, that these programs will backfire and trigger a consumer revolt. The answer is to delay and delay some more. He calls it the “NIMTOO” syndrome, which stands for “Not In My Term Of Office.”

Watch Herbert Harris summarize the main lesson of the PowerCents DC pilot program.

The Town Hall Meeting was organized by the Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid.

1 Comment to Matching smart grid apps to customer lifestyles

  1. Kalnel's GravatarKalnel
    July 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I think the exit of Google and Microsoft from the consumer smart grid space in the past few weeks shows there’s more at work here than simply engaging the customer.

    Anyone trying to ramp up efforts in this arena faces a dilemma: How do you get customers enthusiastic about suddenly monitoring their energy use when this has been a simple and passive utility-managed activity for a century? Where is the tipping point between benefit/convenience and apathy/annoyance?

    Web-based services and apps may help usher this concept in, especially in the near-term, but people will get bored with having to manage their energy use unless they see some impressive personal gains.

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