For the past few years, consumer education and consumer engagement has been a rallying cry of forward-looking utilities and the smart grid industry.
The rallying cry so far has not been answered.
A new report by the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative has found many of the same answers to questions about smart grid that it found a year ago. Primarily, just over half of all consumers had never heard of smart grid. For the 20 percent who have heard of the term, they don’t really know what it means.
The average person can hardly be faulted, since even industry insiders have varying "smart grid" definitions, and many hate the term all together.
The survey from SGCC and a recent report from Accenture offer some valuable insights, however, on how to garner some good will and engage with customers. It’s called the internet.
For most utility customers, there has been a “dramatic move” toward low-touch, high-tech channels of interaction such as e-mail or web portals, according to Accenture’s report, Actionable Insights for the New Energy Consumer.
“Some of this is just about fundamentals,” said Greg Guthridge, global managing director for Accenture Retail and Business Services for Utilities. He noted that more than 65 percent of customers would rather use mobile or online services for the bulk of basic services. The onus is on utilities to create sophisticated yet easy-to-use interfaces to deliver those services.
- Receiving and paying bills were the most popular services customers wanted online (70 percent).
- About 52 percent also wanted to learn about new home energy services and new energy packages online.
- Just over 50 percent would like to get outage information or make changes to an address via email, social media or mobile apps.
- When it comes to high-touch channels, defined as in-person, telephone or online chat, only the problem of resolving billing issues was a service people actually want a real person for (60 percent). Signing up for new services saw 41 percent of people saying they’d rather engage with a person.
The findings highlight that customers want to do most things online, but when it comes to learning or actually pulling the trigger and making a purchase, people want to talk to someone.
Although some people, primarily the older generation, prefer paper bills and picking up the phone, the SGCC survey found that 82 percent have a wireless network in the home, and half have at least one social media account. One of the most critical findings is that about one-third of the respondents to the SGCC survey found that they will use social media in the future to look for new ways to manage energy or get energy efficiency tips.
Some utilities and vendors are already responding to this trend. Reliant has a dedicated social media team (and we’re not just talking about the office intern). Opower has a Facebook app that anyone can use, but it works best if your utility is a client of Opower’s. Lucid has long tied its energy management dashboard to social media platforms. Increasingly, utilities are using Twitter and Facebook to update customers during outages.
Social media use will have to become commonplace, rather than reactionary, for utilities -- especially if they want to build customer interest for smart grid projects. “These technologies continue to be off the public’s radar screen to a surprising degree,” the SGCC said in its findings.
Now is the time to get on board with serious, focused social media projects. In 2010, Accenture found just 1 percent of customers opted to use social media to get customized advice on energy management programs. Now that figure is up to 30 percent, and it doubles for emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, South Korea and South Africa.
If utilities don’t craft programs now, customers will go elsewhere, which they have already started to do in the U.S., where customers can go to Best Buy, Lowe’s or a home security company to get energy management options for the home.
“There continues to be a real need for consumer education around smart grid,” Patty Durand, executive director of SGCC, said in a statement. “The current low levels of public awareness on this issue represent both a challenge and an opportunity, but they must be acted upon.”
Consumers (mostly) love bundled services, and about half of customers said they would be interested in home repair services or telecommunications services from their utility. For premium services, such as more renewables or personalized energy information, customers said they would pay more.
The battle is that it is also telecom providers who are beginning to offer those value-add energy services. For utilities, streamlining offerings and gaining trust will be key if they want to be a player in bundled services (this mostly pertains to deregulated markets, but could change with regulatory shifts in regulated markets). In the U.K., department stores are even getting into the power business.
“Trust is low,” said Guthridge, “but even so, customers still instinctively want to turn to their energy provider. But now they’re also turning to others.”