Many utilities have a hard enough time improving relations with the general customer base. It can be even more difficult to successfully engage low-income customers.

But there are strategies that work, especially to get low-income customers into new energy-efficiency and demand-response programs, according to a study from the Low Income Energy Issues Forum, a new group created by Distributed Energy Financial Group (DEFG), an energy consumer consulting firm.

“Every dollar matters to low-income families, so the benefits of [demand-side management] measures must be clearly quantified and communicated,” the study authors wrote. On the upside, many other studies and programs have found that once low-income customers are engaged, they are eager participants in energy-efficiency and demand-response programs. 

Here are five ways to make that happen.

Create high-touch interactions.

 Despite what a study from Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative found, robocalls are not enough. Instead, high-touch, tailored interactions are critical to relationship-building with low-income populations. Utilities should look for community partnerships and also put boots on the ground. “There is a huge impact when a well-trained customer agent is at the door or on the phone delivering high-quality customer interactions.” Once relationships are established, utilities can use lower-cost methods, such as text messages.

Know what you’re trying to achieve.

This one may seem obvious, but there should be measurable goals the utility wants to achieve from new engagements with low-income customers, such as specific targets for peak demand reduction. For low-income customers, who are more likely to rent rather than own, that often means working with multi-family building owners and renters.

Find ways to create “enhanced transactions” that leverage smart grid technologies.

Smart meters and investment in backend systems have allowed many utilities to offer customers new programs, such as mobile bill alerts, which have been very popular. It’s not enough just to tell people to use less energy -- you have to give them actionable, detailed ways to do it. Utilities should start with offering more detailed billing information with alerts through various channels. Other studies have found that many low-income customers are also interested in time-of-use programs. DEFG notes that mobile platforms, instead of web, are particularly important to engage low-income customers.

Segment, segment, segment.

It’s not enough to just lump together low-income customers. Successful programs will leverage customer data to segment different types of low-income customers that will require different approaches. Some customers, for instance, might be interested in prepay programs, while others might benefit from a peak rebate. DEFG argues that engaging with the customer should feel like a personal, signature experience and not just a business transaction.

Connect energy efficiency programs with assistance funds.

Many utilities have started to break down silos to better leverage the reams of data coming off of smart grid investments. One area where there could be synergies is bringing customers that require bill assistance into energy-efficiency measures to help reduce bills overall. Demand response offerings should be seen as a tool to help customers if bill assistance levels decline or if rates go up.