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Digitally minded customers are bringing new expectations and values to their relationships with their energy providers

How to Improve the Utility Customer Experience

Energy providers are using digital platforms, personalized marketing and integrated smart home technology to modernize their relationships with customers.

Over the past decade, energy providers have come a long way in how they view the customers at the other end of the meter. From a long-entrenched mindset that viewed consumers as “billpayers,” “ratepayers” or even “load”, many energy providers are now thinking in terms of the customer journey and seeking to be a trusted energy advisor.

Younger generations of digitally minded customers are bringing new expectations and values to their relationships with their energy providers, and as such, energy providers are increasingly taking cues from leading customer-focused companies from outside the energy industry — for instance, Amazon, Netflix, Southwest, Lyft and so forth. New apps and other digital platforms, personalized marketing and integrated smart home technology are just a few of the methods that energy providers are now using to modernize their relationships with their customers.

And, while these efforts have had a positive impact on customer satisfaction levels in recent years, there’s still work to be done to develop positive customer experiences for all energy consumers, including milllennials, lower-income consumers, renters and other important subsets.

To develop a clearer picture of what today’s energy consumers want from their energy providers, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) undertook five consumer research projects throughout 2018, including deep dives into two emerging trends, data analytics and digital platforms, and three customer subsets, lower-income consumers, “selectively engaged” consumers and small-and-medium business customers.

While these reports covered a variety of topics, overarching themes began to emerge from the survey data on ways that energy providers could boost engagement among their customers. The recently published “2019 State of the Consumer” report, which incorporated over 5,500 survey responses, provides overviews of the key 2018 research findings and highlights five of the most important takeaways on improving the customer experience.

These takeaways can be used by electricity providers and other industry stakeholders to better serve today’s energy consumers:

  1. Return-on-investment information helps consumers understand programs and drives participation. Across our 2018 studies, both residential and small and medium business (SMB) customers expressed a clear desire to have information on what financial benefits they will receive if they choose to participate in a program or service. While consumers might be interested in a program, there appears to be some hesitancy to participate if the financial benefits are not clear. By providing customers with personalized, easy-to-understand on the cost-benefit ratio, energy providers can boost enrollment.
  2. The time is now for technology-based solutions like those offered in other industries. Consumers of all stripes now use technology to meet their daily needs — it’s no longer just millennials and early adopters — and these predilections are carrying over into the utility-customer relationship. Technology like mobile apps or online portals can make engagement with the energy provider more convenient and more effective. As energy providers aim to develop a utility-customer relationship that is no longer purely transactional, but an end-to-end experience, technology should be an integral, meaningful component of this journey.
  3. The already engaged consumers are ready for the next step. Our research has found that consumers who are already engaged are also more interested in new ways to save and be more energy efficient, and this is true for both residential and SMB customers. Energy providers can identify these consumers by using their own data consolidated from disparate silos in the organization and by building processes that start tracking every interface a customer has with their organization. By nurturing relationships with these consumers with personalized, timely recommendations on what’s next, they can move these empowered consumers to the next level of energy savings.
  4. Upfront costs are a hurdle for many consumers – not only those with lower incomes. As one would expect, upfront costs are a major hurdle for consumers with low and moderate incomes. However, according to our survey, it’s not only these low-income consumers that need help managing larger initial financial investments. By developing creative, low-risk ways to finance upfront costs — like on-bill financing or a Pay As You Save program — energy providers can help make participation a possibility for a wider range of consumers.
  5. Consumers will enroll and participate if it’s easy and convenient for them to do so. Today’s consumers are busy, and they don’t always have their energy needs top of mind — but that doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in enrolling and participating in energy-related programs and services. By making sign-up and participation simple and streamlined (think Amazon’s 1-Click ordering or automatic enrollment), energy providers can help their consumers jump from interest to participation.

As the energy sector continues to evolve, strategies for effective consumer engagement are increasingly viewed as a cornerstone for energy providers who want to be successful in the new energy future. By listening attentively to what consumers want, energy providers can ensure that programs are designed to maximize participation, energy savings and customer satisfaction.

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