During a break at The Networked Grid, a programmer from a utility in Australia offered up a story about an unnamed utility that was giving away iPads as part of a pilot to help people track and reduce their home energy use. Some people in the pilot returned the iPads, as they couldn’t believe the utility would offer something for nothing. They were sure that the cost of the iPad would eventually show up on their bill.

Although the details of that particular story are fuzzy, the lack of trust that most consumers have in their utilities is crystal clear. There is more than a whisper that utilities might be left just holding the wires while other companies cash in on goods and services that the smart grid will enable. To make sure that doesn’t happen, there will need to be a revolution in the relationships between most big utilities and the people they serve.

“Who does the customer trust?” asked Chris Villarreal, Regulatory Analyst in the Policy and Planning Division for the California Public Utility Commission.  “People just don’t trust their utilities for one reason or another.”

When Nick Hunn, Development Director of Onzo, a U.K.-based company that provides customer solutions to utilities, talks to customers, he hears one message. “The first thing they say is they don’t trust the utility, the second thing they say is they don’t trust the utility, and then the third thing they say is they don’t trust the utility,” he said at The Networked Grid on a panel about dynamic pricing.

To combat that fact, many utilities have hired Chief Customer Officers -- but there is still a chasm between top-level corporate speak and a meaningful change in how utilities interact with their customers. But some investor-owned utilities say they’re listening more than ever. “We hear from customers that they don’t feel they don’t have control over their bill,” said Karen Zelmar, Director of Pricing Products for Pacific Gas &Electric. Zelmar, who is looking at dynamic pricing options for PG&E customers, did not address the fact that the utility seems embroiled in a neverending public relations nightmare over smart meters.

Many large utilities are working on the trust issue -- but the question is whether they’re moving fast enough. Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Marketing and Strategy for OPower, told Greentech Media that some of the utilities he talks to really don’t seem to get it. But that’s exactly what has kept things humming for business models like OPower. The company, which provides behavior modification techniques to help homes cut power consumption, can come in and offer tailored information to residents, allowing utilities to achieve reductions averaging 4 percent. There is a chance some utilities will never really 'get' their customers, but they’ll hire the people who do -- such as OPower, Aclara, Google PowerMeter, eMeter or others (the list grows seemingly every day). The most successful utilities, however, will be the ones that integrate customer satisfaction into their organizational DNA.

Providing information is the first step for many utilities in rebuilding the trust with those that they sell power to -- and then from there they could offer services to move far beyond efficiency gains in the single digits. The next step is keeping the ball rolling in a meaningful way. “So much of what happens is that people are engaged for one month, then they carry on how they were before,” said Hunn. “Being nice to the consumer is really important if you’re deregulated.” If the utility isn’t nice enough, there are plenty of companies waiting in the wings to fill that gap.