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DistribuTECH 2017: All roads lead to the customer 

amanda levin | utility dive | 9 february 2017 

To read the full article in Utility Dive, click here.

DistribuTECH’s annual electric power transmission and distribution conference and trade show has traditionally focused on technologies used to move electricity from the power plant through the T&D systems to the meter and inside the home. Over the years, it has evolved into a global event that also provides utilities and energy companies with guidance on the key trends.

One key trend seen this year is surrounding the customer – using technology and data analytics to create a more effective customer service journey and experience, and expanding the definition of the customer. Ultimately, the mindset of a utility is transforming from being a traditional utility – seeing the customer as a ratepayer with a connection to a meter - to a customer services company – whereby the utility tailors the user experience to better serve the needs and desires of individuals.

Fouad Dagher, Manager at National Grid, an international energy company in the UK and northeastern US, put it best at a session on customer strategies and technologies when he said, “We are changing the dialogue from what it means to the utility and regulator to what it means to me as the customer.” Defining the value of the technology to the customer and developing a simple and concise message about its benefits are the keys to success, he added.

One example of this shift is National Grid’s Sustainability Hub in Worcester, Mass., which allows customers the opportunity to manage their own energy usage using no-cost, in-home technologies: digital picture frames, smart thermostats, smart plugs and the online energy portals. The result has been that customers have been able to reduce their energy usage by upwards of ~30% and save ~$100 per year on their energy bill. 

Since the pilot’s inception a couple of years ago, Dagher said that only 3% of customers have opted out of the program. “The program has been successful because we gave the customers what they wanted – we listened to them,” he said.

Dagher also cited the Clifton Park, NY REV Demand Reduction Demonstration project as an example of National Grid providing customers with real-time data through the use of AMI to let them know how they can conserve energy. The customer receives a notification of an event, the customer then reduces their energy usage, the utility determines the customer’s energy reduction, the customer receives a thank you message, and the process ends with the customer receiving rewards (i.e. points, gift cards) for participating. “We created this program to give the customers the tools they need to save energy,”

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Many customers are still in the dark about how changes happening at the grid edge can provide value, and thus, creating an opportunity for utilities to explain these benefits and ultimately form a relationship with the customer.

“Customers don’t know what they don’t know,” said Katie Espeseth, Vice President-New Products, EPB, a municipally-owned utility in Chattanooga, Tenn. “We may have saved customers from an outage, but they may not know that, so it is important for us to communicate with the customer that the smart grid is working well.” 

In the late 1990’s, in response to rising rates and declining margins, EPB decided to add a new revenue stream and formed a separate fiber optics division. The lesson learned was to talk about values, the benefits to the customer, and not just on the sale of the product. “We have tried to interweave those messages into our electric business as well, as customers have choices. We want to talk about what we can do for you,” Espeseth said. 

Manuel Avendaño, Manager Emerging Technologies at Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), a subsidiary of Chicago, Ill.-based Exelon Corporation, highlighted the importance of engaging in community service to build trust within the community and develop the relationship with the customer. “We are a community, we’re not just serving customers with electricity, but powering lives,” he said, when asked by the moderator about ComEd’s participate in a Hispanic heritage event.

One of the ways EPB is connecting with the community is by sending “Professor Gig-A-Watt” into schools (at no cost to the school) to speak to students about electricity, safety, and the benefits of green power – in an entertaining manner. Espeseth said he met with about 14,000 students last year.

Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric Company launched an educational demonstration program in July 2015 to teach students and the community about energy technologies and management tools, and the equipment that will help integrate renewable energy into a modern electric grid. Through the Site Engagement & Energy Smarts (SEES) initiative, schools in the utility’s service territory received STEM Powerscopes to provide real-time monitory and visual tools to create awareness of electricity usage, said Dora Nakafuji, Director of Renewable Energy Planning at Hawaiian Electric.  

When communicating with customers, it is important to reach out to them through communications channels that they prefer, and social media is the preferred choice for many customers, said Avendaño. “People will tweet about the quality of service – tweeting will happen with or without the utility – so it is important that we treat it as a customer service tool. As important as it is to develop smart grid technologies, it is equally important to keep customers informed and engaged,” he said. In addition to Twitter, ComEd is also active on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook – and always staying on the lookout for new social media sites.

All of the utility leaders agreed that storytelling is a powerful and effective tool, and William Monzon, Distribution Products at Juno Beach, Fla.-based FPL, said his company uses it to its fullest extent via its blog: “Changing the Current: It’s all about you.” The blog uses a variety of communications streams, such as videos and infographics, to reach customers. The key is to use customer friendly language, keep the message simple, and focus on the benefits to the customer and the community, said Monzon.

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