EEC Perspectives

Energy Efficiency: Put People Before Buildings

We’re at that part of 2016 when many of our New Year’s resolutions lay behind us, broken and abandoned, despite our best intentions: We’ve resumed eating carbs, we’ve stopped going to the gym, and we’re still in that unhealthy relationship.

Not to worry. If you adopted a personal New Year’s resolution to increase customer participation in your utility’s energy efficiency programs (always a popular resolution for this crowd!), here’s an idea. . It involves partnering with a top-tier solutions provider (not me, but thanks for asking) that can do what most utilities can’t.

Courtesy: CleaResult

Courtesy: CleaResult

The company is CLEAResult. This is not a paid advertisement. Rather, it is a full-throated endorsement from a highly satisfied customer. And we all know how valuable those are.

CLEAResult’s approach to energy efficiency is a little different. Its mission is, “to change the way people use energy.” Its solution to enhancing a utility’s customer’s experience is called, People First. Buildings Second.

An Artful Combination of Left Brain and Right Brain

Different, right? Most utilities, and most third-party energy-efficiency firms, start by ensuring the integrity of the building envelope. No sense upgrading your HVAC system if your building’s walls look like Swiss cheese.

The traditional “buildings first” approach makes a lot of sense, particularly in the highly analytic, left-brain, quantitative culture that exists inside a utility. I’ve worked in one of the best utilities around, and the “quants” were definitely running the show. So yes, making sure the numbers pencil out is important.

But the “buildings first” approach doesn’t help a utility improve its relationship with customers. A house can’t write a check to improve the integrity of its building envelope. Only customers can write a check. And trying to talk to most customers about the importance of a tight building envelope is a non-starter in the customer experience journey—it doesn’t engage them, it doesn’t fulfill an aspiration, it doesn’t resonate with customers and it certainly doesn’t touch their hearts and lift their spirits.

Getting on the Same Planet as Your Customers

That’s why, when it comes to residential energy efficiency, most utilities are still from Mars and most customers are still from Venus, to tinker with the title of the best-selling book by John Gray. Utilities still focus on technical issues and payback periods while customers want to know if it comes in blue or if there’s a financing plan. All too often, we have a dialogue of the (mutually) deaf.

But by partnering with CLEAResult, utilities can better connect with their customers and achieve greater kilowatt-hour and therm savings. CLEAResult may not be the only energy-services company with a highly personalized energy adviser service. But they’re the only one with whom I have interacted as a customer. And as a customer, I am extremely satisfied.

It wasn’t easy writing a $6,000 check for home energy-efficiency improvements, but once I wrote the check, it wasn’t about the money. It was about getting great service. And I got that throughout the process.

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Boosting Your Utility’s Employee Engagement, CSAT and Profitability

The utility industry has been roiled in recent years by mergers & acquisitions (M&A). Most publicly held electric and gas utilities are either in the process of integrating a merger, preparing a merger, or both. Over $166 billion of utility-industry M&A has taken place since 2012, according to PwC’s North American Power Deals (see below).

intro graph

M&A can be particularly hard on a company’s culture: If you’re the “acquired,” you wonder how your job, work conditions and your company’s culture will be affected. If you’re the “acquirer,” you may wonder the same thing, but you go into those deliberations with a little extra confidence: As the acquirer, you may be more likely to keep your job and gain more responsibility compared to people who worked for the company being acquired.

Mergers aren’t the only strategic changes shaking up the utility industry. System upgrades, leadership changes, new technology, asset sales, fuel price volatility, the threat of customer choice, budget cuts and new regulatory requirements are upending the well-established work environments of all utility employees.

All of these changes are stressing and straining your organization’s culture. Many utility leaders, when asked about their organization’s culture, emphasize its importance. But the conversation often ends there. We recommend those leaders spend some time on Glassdoor, checking out their employees’ comments about their company. We did, and we found there were utilities where a significant percentage of employees don’t trust their CEO and would not recommend their friends apply to work there.

Mergers aren’t the only force stressing your employees. But many Glassdoor contributors feel cramped by organizational cultures they described as overly political, too in-bred and highly resistant to change. More than a few said career advancement depended on their boss retiring, or having an inappropriate relationship with him or her. Hard to bring your best each day to THAT job, right?

Ironically, if you looked at the stated vision, mission and goals of those utilities, I am sure somewhere there will be a statement affirming the importance of employee engagement, or fulfillment, or empowerment. Most utility leaders would agree their organization cannot succeed without the contributions of enthusiastic, knowledgeable and dedicated employees. But in the day-to-day hurly-burly of managing crises, revising budgets and changing processes, utility employees aren’t feeling the love.

We documented the challenge many utilities faced on employee engagement in Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases. And if you think all your employees know, understand and internalize your company’s vision, mission and goals, I also recommend you check out this recent article in the Financial Times, which showed a scary percentage of business leaders at a particular conference didn’t recognize the stated values of their own companies.

doesyourtalkA significant gap between what an organization’s leaders say, and what is done, creates a fertile breeding ground for culture-based crises. In a previous post, we have explored how leaders court disaster when what they say is at odds with what is said, done, rewarded or punished down in the trenches. And we followed that with an easy way to diagnose and close any gaps between an organization’s stated values and its leaders’ behavior.

About the time I wrote those blog posts, an exciting company was being born. It’s a company utilities should investigate. Several utilities I know should seriously consider hiring this company to obtain greater clarity and adherence to the utility’s values.

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Six for 2016: A “To-Do” List for Utility Communicators & Marketers

The Washington Post has a great year-in-review/year-in-preview feature, called “The In & Out List.” Many media and consulting organizations write a year-end recap/prediction piece, but the Post’s list is required reading for me, even though I have not lived in the D.C. area for 25 years.

At this stage in my life, I check The Post’s In and Out List to see how many of the personalities, songs, consumer goods and trends in the article — regardless of whether they’re “in” or “out” — are completely new to me. As the years progress, the “new to me” column has grown exponentially. In other words, the list helps me recalibrate my “completely clueless” score.

Credit: Library of Congress

Credit: Library of Congress

But it’s a little different in our line of work, isn’t it? Most of the things utility communicators and marketers see in one year will pop up again next year. If you leave aside the year 1752, when Benjamin Franklin is said to have proved the concept of electricity by flying his kite in a thunderstorm, most of the challenges utility communicators and marketers grapple with don’t change all that much from year to year. Every once in a while, a momentous event occurs that upends the industry’s well-settled apple carts (think Clean Power Plan). But more often there are variations and extensions of a theme. Even the energy scams only change marginally from year to year.

You could make an exception to that rule when it comes to utility communications and marketing, which are being transformed by digital technologies. But even though the form of communications and marketing is changing, the challenges that drive us are not. In musical terms, the song may remain the same, but the tempo and arrangement are being switched up.

Herewith are six of my 12 predictions for 2016, flavored with pop culture references that should be familiar to aging Baby Boomers, still-spry Gen X-ers and sometimes misunderstood Millennials, for how utility communicators and marketers can more effectively address six perennial challenges.

#1. Houston, We (Still) Have a Problem with Price Increase Communications

survey coverPrice-increase communications was the top strategic issue facing North American utility communicators and marketers in 2015, according to our study, Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases. I see no reason why that will not continue in 2016. Many electric utilities are still building new generation and infrastructure while they are installing pollution-control equipment on some of their generators. Even though gas prices are historically low, gas utilities are still replacing or expanding their network of pipes.

Utility communicators and marketers continue to tell us they struggle when it comes to messaging about price increases. The “we haven’t increased our prices since 1989” message almost never resonates with customers, though it continues to be a staple of utility messaging.

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