The business world celebrates ‘Get to Know Your Customers‘ Day once per quarter as a regular reminder that really understanding your end customers is key to meeting goals and staying successful, which is no doubt true for the utility sector in particular.
In recent years, the Energy Central Community Team has used this quarterly reminder to ask the community about what they’ve learned about their customers, what they’re doing to find out more, and how they can share those lessons learned. So for this quarter’s Get to Know Your Customers Day (which happens to be on October 19), let’s take quick stock of some of those lessons that we’ve learned on this platform:
We often ask many questions of our customers and they respond very well. Of course, there is still quite a bit we would like to have that we just haven’t “gotten there yet” with, but have made strides in doing so through our Voice of the Customer (VOC) work. Additionally we have customer personas (Residential and Commercial) that have come from a result of asking various questions of our customers via our Community Connect webpage and other surveys.
But, there is something else. Something we don’t have. My specific role at OPPD is to educate our youth about energy, renewables and energy efficiency, but also the adults (i.e. bill-paying customers). We can ask every question under the sun about our customers so we can better understand what we’re working with, but what I would really like to have is a more qualitative view of our customers. To do that, I’d like to know – again within my specific area of work: education in energy, efficiency and renewables – what questions do THEY have of us? Of me? What do they want to see from us? Not only that, what questions do they have in general of utilities?
The questions we ask of customers are incredible ones and the way in which some of the market research efforts obtain these questions (e.g. through feedback sessions, board meetings, etc.) is impressive. The insights and data we get (and can get) is incredibly valuable. But, we can’t always get everything we really need from a customer until we start allowing them to ask questions of us. What do WE have to offer as answers to THEIR questions?
In my experience, you will really know what you know when you have to teach it. If we ask our customers what questions they have of us, of the utility industry, of energy, I feel we will gain some valuable insight we couldn’t get by them just answering our questions. We will know what we really know when we have to give it back to them.
I will offer a very brief insight on this matter.
Timing can be impactful on the usefulness of customer feedback given that price pressures and bill volatility can likely crowd out non-price customer insights and skew the data.
Seeking to collect data and customer insights during periods of the year where bills are the lowest could result in more feedback on customer service attributes that are more expansive and helpful in improving service delivery.
We’re seeing a lot of customer insight questions related to projects at utilities around the country to try to engage more often and more effectively, as well as offer the right programs, products and services that make a difference in customers’ lives. Strictly on a residential basis, here’s a few of the top questions we get about more customer data:
How many people live in the home? How many are kids? – tells us a bit about load expectations and helps utilities start to understand household demographics.
How many connected devices are in the home? – tells us if the customer is leaning into smarthome tech, and may be a good candidate for products like surge protection, security, or energy management.
Does the customer own or is shopping for an EV? – great insight for energy efficiency suggestions, as well as a candidate for any time of use or charger programs. Especially helpful for markets where utilities offer a special rate for EV charging, which is the kind of information that may tip a shopper into a buyer and add another EV to the roads.
Age – a growing cohort of customers want to “age in place,” so knowing the age of the people in the household helps utilities determine if special services or offers may help their customers remain in place in their home longer and enhance the value of their utility.
Type of employment? – third party demographic profiles can provide estimates of credit scores and income levels, but type of employment may benefit the utility to anticipate challenges for payment in the future based on employment data and local employer decisions, making it easier for utilities to offer rate and payment assistance programs in a pro-active fashion.
Solar interests? – utilities bear the brunt of customer inquiries for solar projects gone wrong, especially when there’s been an unscrupulous sales person promising unrealistic savings. Knowing of solar interest gives utilities a better chance to engage proactively to help customers make fully informed decisions about rooftop solar and any potential savings.
Work at Home? – as employment for many industries has shifted away from the office at least for some of the typical work week, knowing if customers work at home can help utilities refactor expectations for demand response programs and residential load forecasts that may be affected by local work@home propensity. Customers who work at home may also benefit from special products and services from the utility including technical support and service plans, or perhaps generator or battery backup systems if they have a low threshold for service interruptions due to work responsibilities.
All of these factors, plus a healthy does of third party demographic data improves the utility’s ability to engage customers on a more relevant, timely and personalized basis, as well as fine tune expectations for their energy and efficiency needs.
From Russ Hissom:
I think that as forecasting electric needs becomes more complicated, greater information about distributed energy resources (DER) would be helpful before the fact, not after. And, as rate structures become more intertwined with smart metering, what would incentivize residential customers to move to time of day rates? I have seen mandatory “opt-out” of time of day rate structures, but that still doesn’t answer the question. What would be an effective way to instruct customers on the tools they can use to manage their electricity use. What type of apps could utilities provide to tap into the internet of things to help them get interested?
Surveys would help, perhaps workshops, but the majority of customers move along in the lane they’re used to.
At Chelan County Public Utility District in Central Washington state, we have made a commitment to getting input from customers. Here are a few examples:
-Every two years we conduct both a key stakeholder feedback survey and a customer satisfaction survey. We’ve earned high marks from customers in recent years, with the most recent 2020 survey showing 86% of our customers gave us “satisfied” or “very satisfied” scores.
-During our strategic planning process, held every five years, we reach out to customers through community meetings, “topic team” committees, written surveys and other outreach to ensure our long term planning reflects community values.
-As we plan projects — whether new substations, fire hardening improvements, community conservation efforts — we send updates to customers and hold meetings to collect their feedback.
These activities and others help us bring the greatest possible value to our customers in Washington state.
It has been quite an eye-opening year in many ways.
The biggest customer revelation we saw was a rapid acceleration in digital engagement in 2020. Email open rates hit record highs last spring (40% open rate in March), eNewsletter engagement was off the charts (37% open rate), and customers were especially interested in energy efficiency content as they spent more time at home and shifted work to home offices. When the crisis hit, customers were eager to hear from their energy provider.
The lingering impact has been increased conversions for digital services like My Account and eBill. During the initial months of the pandemic we saw a 20% increase in the open rate for eBill campaigns and a 53% increase in click-to-open rate for the entire year. We expect customer interest in convenient, hands-free services like this to grow into lasting digital relationships with their energy providers.
The energy marketing business offers a unique opportunity to learn more about customers after a contract is signed. In my view, it is table stakes to make sure your client has an easy access to a copy of what they signed either via a hardcopy, electronic or on a portal. Communicating and thanking them is a great time to get feedback. You can ask questions like; was their account rep knowledgeable, did you make the experience easy for them, and the key one, what could you do differently. One then needs to spent the energy to track every single response, calibrate the responses – looking for trends and to communicate the results to key stakeholders. Make it worth their while to respond and make it easy. Things like sending a pen with a postage paid return envelope with the package or including an easy to find link or easy to follow instructions in the response are critical elements to secure good feedback.
Additionally, if your customers know that you were going to do something with the results, then they are much more invested in responding. You’ll get better response if you regularly give feedback about what you are doing. Regular customer centric newsletters and blogs are great vehicles for this feedback.
So, in brief, successful efforts to learn more about your clients must include simplicity, value and communicating that value of the feedback to your customers.
From Michael Smith:
Utilities have more info about their customers now than they have at any time in the past. Energy usage, payment history, program preferences, and digital customer portal data are a few examples of this. Add in other sources like survey data and social media data, and the utility starts to have a more complete picture of its customers on an individual basis and in the aggregate, enabling better/deeper engagement on issues impacting its customers.
One area where that I believe utility leaders are looking to get an even deeper level of insight and engagement and providing information that utility leaders “wish” they had that will prove to be difficult to execute is in the energy disaggregation area. This is impressive technology that can not only yield insights, but also can enable automated actions. This can take demand response programs to new levels of effectiveness.
The challenges will not be technical, but social and legal. Most utility residential customers appreciate the availability of different programs to help manage their energy costs and some even take this to the level of wanting to take part in addressing climate issues, but I believe that most people will draw the line at the level of what I’ll call “control intimacy” from their utility. Cycling an air conditioner during a summer peak is one thing; automated control or even signaling about when to run or not run appliances inside the home is another matter. Many people will legitimately ask, “if you are controlling my washer and dryer today, what will you be controlling next year or next week?”
One other concern is that people are used to a very simple relationship with their utility: I pay my bill, you keep the lights on. This is evolving as people become more aware of energy issues and as many customers become part of the DER-rich energy environment, but “reaching” into the home will be viewed as an entirely new relationship with their utility that will, for lack of a better term, creep a lot of people out.
There might be some cultures where government mandates will override any privacy concerns from the citizens (the Covid pandemic is a good example of this where some countries had draconian shutdowns and other measures) but for societies that value freedom and privacy rights, energy disaggregation will likely be a line that is drawn. The exception will be people that are OK with this and can opt in to energy disaggregation programs, much like many have opted into air condition cycling programs. This is a win-win.
To borrow a phrase, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something.