5 Programs to Make Energy Real in Your Utility Communications

Lack of customer participation will kill at least one of your utility’s strategic initiatives. Perhaps it already has. But you can prevent the premature death of a strategic initiative by using these utility communications tips.

Every interaction with customers is a communications opportunity. Utilities show what they value—positively and negatively—when they communicate with customers. That includes verbal communications, such as advertisements and newsletters, as well as non-verbal communications like customer programs.

How Meaning Is ConveyedIndeed, the nearby pie chart, based on research conducted by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, shows that more than 90% of the meaning in a conversation is conveyed through non-verbal means. For companies than cannot communicate individually with each of their customers, this means actions, like offering programs, counts for way more than the words is an ad or a press release.

Utility communicators and marketers have a unique challenge: connecting with (mainly residential) customers about a vital service that can’t be seen, touched, tasted, or otherwise experienced—except when the lights go out.

Consumers in restructured markets like Texas have one way—price—to assess the relative value of electric service. Utilities inside and outside restructured markets have offered “green” electricity for years. But for utilities and their regulators, the programs are generally, if not universally, unsatisfying.

Many utilities are using—or planning to use—price as both a carrot and stick in their efforts to change the way their customers use electricity. Lower your usage, or shift usage to off-peak periods, and you could lower your electric bill. Fail to do that and your electric bill will rise.

Positioning electric service as something painful to be minimized puts utilities—and their communicators—in a lose-lose situation. Option A: Do things your way and get hammered. Option B: Do things our way and get hammered somewhat less.

That’s what happens when you position your service on price for a century. But there’s another approach that offers potentially high paybacks and low costs. It involves putting the “public” back in “public service.”

Recently, I spoke at a utility-industry conference session on “Making Energy Real.” Here are five programs that utilities are, or could, use to demystify electric service and build bridges to their residential customers:

  •  Free walk-through energy audits
  • In-home displays (perhaps loaned on a short-term basis)
  • Direct-installation of energy-conservation measures
  • Pre-pay metering
  • Employee ambassador programs

Utility executives are depending on their communicators and marketers to achieve certain levels of success in various customer-facing programs like time-differentiated rates, energy efficiency, and demand response. Real dollars – often a lot of them – are at stake. Penalties too. And potentially even additional profits.

Having been a utility communicator, and now as an adviser to utility communicators, I know that customer interactions can be awkward or difficult. Utilities are technical, analytic, legal, and precise. They think about the long term. They are anxious about setting precedents.

Typically, customers are none of those things: They don’t know what they want—but they know they want it now. They want the services they consume to be have high value. Sometimes that means low costs. Sometimes it means added features and benefits. Most times, it means convenience and customization.

The five programs listed above are all high-touch, but not necessarily high cost. They focus on non-price ways to make energy real without being punitive. It invites them to learn more about electricity and energy by meeting them where they live—literally and figuratively.

And if they have no desire to learn about how electricity is generated, transmitted, distributed, and consumed, that’s fine too. They have a problem and they want it fixed. They’ll think better of you if you can quickly fix their problem so that both of you can go on your separate ways.

At the utility conference where I spoke, no attendee said their utility was doing all five programs. Some said they were doing one. Many said they were doing none of them.

Failing to develop non-price ways to connect with customers carries significant risks. It keeps utilities in the “lose-lose” proposition, vulnerable to criticism when prices increase and completely exposed to customer wrath when a once-a-century weather event turns out the lights for days at a time.

Is that a risk you want to take?  Reduce that risk by following these utilities communications tips.

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