By Jonathan Spencer Jones

Few in our industry can now doubt the importance of engaging with customers – but that is easier said than done, and to provide insights and advice two new reports have been published recently gathering information from utilities and end-users in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Voices of Experience: Insight on Smart Grid Customer Engagement is from the U.S. Department of Energy and draws on the experiences of utilities in the U.S. that were awarded funding under the Smart Grid Investment Grant program.

Clearly and succinctly written and presented, the guide outlines a four-part program with a check list of points that emerged as common tactics and insights that the participating utilities had learned through their smart grid technology deployments. These are:

  • Getting started by making your utility a more customer-centric organization
  • Developing a customer-centric engagement plan
  • Getting approval for the plan, and finally
  • Engaging your customers.

With this process, engaging customers becomes the ‘new normal’, because customer engagement doesn’t have an end, the report states. “It is more of a culture, a way of doing business where your customers are at the center and have choices (even if their choice is to not engage). It requires the utility to continually listen, educate, interact, and provide access to meaningful information that enables those choices.”

Customer engagement is:
“Communications and interactions between the utility and the people it serves with the goal of building trust, respect, and optimal energy usage for each customer.”

The second publication is the altogether more substantial New Energy Consumer Handbook from Accenture, which draws on four years of end-consumer research by the company and other market information to assist utilities in reinventing as consumer-facing organizations with insights on customer interaction and engagement, and a lot else besides.

In preparing for the future, a utility may be tempted to jump quickly into designing new channels, advancing consumer engagement or unveiling innovative products and services, Accenture notes. But providers must not forget the basics: consistently delivering optimal quality and performance at the lowest possible cost.

In order to optimize consumer interaction, utilities must establish a cost effective cross-channel approach (i.e. with print, digital, mobile, etc.) focused on meeting current and future consumer preferences. And building long term satisfaction and loyalty increasingly requires innovative approaches that go beyond the traditional energy experience. “Gamification” or the offering of fun, friendly competition games as a tool for engaging communities, consumers and employees is the next engagement frontier for energy providers, Accenture suggests. Further, segmentation will need to be taken to a new level using analytics to dive deeper into specific consumers’ values, preferences and behaviors.

These two publications provide much food for thought with market insights and field-based actionable information – with the usual caveat that all utilities are different, with unique customers and communities, and so rather than a single roadmap that must be followed they provide a basis for building out your own programs.