EET&D : What is a customer engagement solution and what role does it play in the smart grid?
Daigle : A customer engagement solution (CES) is web-based tool that residential and commercial consumers can access to measure, monitor, and manage their resource consumption. Utilities are currently looking to CES technology to revolutionize the way they engage with their consumers, in both a proactive and collaborative manner that has, until now, been impossible. A top-quality CES helps businesses and homeowners view usage patterns, access targeted educational materials and address account questions without ever needing to contact their utility’s customer service representatives (CSRs).
With near real-time meter reads available, today’s smart grid technology delivers an unprecedented volume of data. A CES interprets that data and enables utilities to showcase usage information in terms that the consumer understands. This is the first time that utilities have been able to demonstrate the value of the smart grid to the consumer. By putting the power into the hands of the consumer and allowing them to make smart decisions about their consumption, they become active participants in resource demand and conservation.
EET&D : What do utilities need to consider when implementing a CES?
Daigle : One of the biggest opportunities is consumer education combined with proactive communication – letting the consumer know that there is now a new way to view and manage their daily resource use. While most consumers have heard about smart grid technology, it is unlikely they will understand what it means specifically for them. This presents a positive opportunity for the utility to inform their consumer-base and explain how they can all become involved in resource management. The utility can have the best tools in the world, but if the consumers aren’t aware that they are available, then adoption will naturally be low.
One of the most important first steps is initial consumer enrolment. However, it is really important to ensure that this is communicated in the benefit-terms of the consumer – what it will mean for them, whether they are motivated by reducing their bills, or contributing positively to conserving the environment. Consumer marketing is a good start: include messaging in bill inserts to notify users of the new tools available, or segment your consumer-base and offer incentives to trial the new CES. Once a user logs in, even once, the utility will have the mechanisms to proactively communicate with them.
EET&D : What do you consider the best practices to be in rolling out a CES?
Daigle : Ensure consumers are only going to one place for their information. If consumers have to log into multiple systems to pay their bills, register complaints, and find out what their usage is, it is likely to cause frustration and they will not return. Once you lose a consumer’s interest, it’s much harder to win it back. Also, having different sites and different tools available also makes it hard from a training perspective for the utility and its own staff. CustomerConnect was designed in collaboration with a range of consumers and provides all the necessary tools in one easy-to-use interface.
Select a CES before you begin your smart meter roll-out and market it alongside the deployment to avoid duplication of effort in terms of consumer marketing and communication. This way you can inform consumers when both the smart meter installation will take place and when new tools are available that will help them make smart choices about their resource consumption. This will improve the chances of early consumer-enlistment and enable you to educate consumers from the outset.
Recruiting consumers to use the CES should be at the forefront of the minds of CSRs. As utilities migrate across more consumers to use the CES to access information and pay bills online, it makes the support of the consumer base far easier. For example, if consumers can view their consumption information online, they are less likely to make regular calls to the CSR. But if they do, however, they have the most accurate information at their fingertips making resolution easier and faster. A simple way to encourage the customer service team to recruit users to the engagement solution is to have small giveaways, for example, as rewards to the team.
Ensure that the information you present is always up-to-date and current. A good CES works on the same principles as social media, where information has to always be reliable and trustworthy. If the information is accurate, consumers will remain interested and value the offering.
Adjust your CES strategy and content based on consumer trends. Today’s strategy may be to encourage conservation in peak periods, but tomorrow there may be different business drivers. Once utilities start to understand trends of the users, they can create segmented strategies. Utilities can use analytics to track user behavior, what content is popular and target users accordingly.
EET&D : Can you give some examples of utilities you’ve worked with where customer engagement will make an impact?
Daigle : One of our customers, Lakeland Electric – a central Florida utility, chose CustomerConnect to help encourage its consumers to make better decisions about their energy consumption.
As part of a year-long exercise, the solution will be pilot tested in about 2,000 homes and businesses before it is rolled out to all 124,000 consumers. Once fully implemented, Lakeland anticipates that CustomerConnect will be able to provide consumers with the information they need to reduce their electricity during peak periods.
Lakeland anticipates that it will need more electricity generation capacity in the next eight to ten years. However, the utility estimates that by leveraging their CES to showcase the value and intelligence of the smart grid to its consumers, the construction of a new generator could be delayed by an additional five to seven years. This will save Lakeland millions of dollars.
EET&D : How do you see CES evolving in the future?
Daigle : It’s important to keep in mind the evolving needs of the consumer, whether the information an end-user is looking for is through their smart phone, the web, or via texts. Consumers want information at their fingertips, and soon they will want it faster than is currently available. Although we present data in near real-time already, some utilities still decide to display only data that has been validated by the meter data management solution. This has potential to cause delays in data delivery for up to as much as 48 hours. We see this time gap slowly decreasing to the point where validated consumption data is available to consumers in real-time.
EET&D : What are some ways utilities can prepare for those changes in the future?
Daigle : One of the first ways is ensure CSRs are ahead of the curve and fully understand the benefits of CES for the consumer. This means training CSRs on customer communication and marketing strategies, which includes the discipline of always following up with your consumer. It’s also important to target programs to specific groups, and understand the segments of your consumer base. Every single group won’t be responsive to a standard message or communication and it’s important to understand how different consumers think and their intrinsic motivation and target accordingly.
EET&D : Thank you Norm for the time you have taken out of your busy schedule to speak with us. I agree that the future of energy delivery will be highly dependent on ‘big data.’ As such, the CES will be an invaluable tool in improving the lives of utilities and end users.
About the interviewee
Norm Daigle is executive vice-president of SmartWorks, the innovation arm of Harris Utilities. He has more than 15 years of leadership and management experience in the enterprise technology industry. Prior to joining Harris Utilities, Norm served in a variety of executive-level roles for technology firms such as Capital Technology Partners, MTS Allstream and xwave solutions. Norm holds many professional memberships in the energy industry including the Energy and Utilities Network, Ottawa Technology Network, and Smart Grid Executive Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org