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.

Here’s the back story. Five years ago, Boulder County, Colorado, and the City of Boulder, received an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant to deliver energy-efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses using a high-touch, concierge model. The county and city have long had a deep commitment to using resources wisely, and they needed partners to prove the business model of delivering energy services by focusing on the people side of the business, rather than the building side. A request for proposals was issued, and Populus (acquired by CLEAResult in 2014) won the bid. Soon, Boulder County EnergySmart would be launched.

energy smart logo 2

Courtesy: Boulder County EnergySmart

The “People First. Buildings Second.” approach became a natural extension of CLEAResult’s existing residential offerings. And Boulder County and the City of Boulder were specifically looking for a firm they could partner with to deliver energy services by emphasizing the people part of energy efficiency. From my conversations with the principals, it sounds like everyone brought something to the proverbial kitchen, and a fine meal was created.

Concierge Service Sustains the Customer’s Commitment

My wife Janet and I had been discussing getting an energy audit of our home on and off for years. One day last Spring, we went to a local home & garden show. While Janet investigated decks, I unleashed my inner energy nerd at the Boulder EnergySmart booth. Housing prices in our area have been rising steadily for years, and we figured our home equity line of credit could cover whatever upgrades we might want to have installed. So we took the first step and scheduled a home energy audit.

Soon, I would taste the secret sauce that demonstrates the validity of the “People First. Buildings Second.” business model. A concierge, Paul, soon introduced himself via email, and he helped shepherd me past all the usual off-ramps for efficiency projects:

  • He sent me the home energy audit
  • He patiently stepped me through my options
  • He provided me with a list of pre-approved (i.e., rebate-eligible) contractors
  • He periodically checked back to see where we were in our decision-making, and how the work was progressing
  • He explained issues and terms that I did not understand
  • When the work was complete, he filed for about $750 in rebates from the county, my city and my electric and gas utility, Xcel Energy.
Courtesy: Boulder County EnergySmart

Courtesy: Boulder County EnergySmart

I use the term “concierge” advisedly. Paul delivered the kind of attentive service you would expect at a Four Seasons hotel. He was unfailingly helpful, knowledgeable, pleasant and able to relate to me on my terms. He didn’t make me feel dumb because I didn’t understand the need to inject a proverbial ton of insulation in my attic.

Most importantly, Paul sweated the details so I didn’t have to. Thank you, Paul.

I’m not saying it was painless to sign checks totaling $6,000 for energy-efficiency upgrades, but Paul made the entire process as smooth as it could be.

Courtesy: Boulder County EnergySmart

Courtesy: Boulder County EnergySmart

And when all the upgrades were installed, my wife and I loved how we could get through a Colorado summer day without using the air conditioning, thanks to our new whole-house fan. And the second story of our home was no longer stifling, thanks to all the new attic insulation that has been installed. Finally, I was delighted I no longer needed to wear a sweater during the summer when I worked in my home office in the basement.

Conversion rate with concierge: 50% to 60%

Conversion rate with concierge:
50% to 60%

OK, so much for the “people” part of today’s sermon. What do we know about the business results?

Dave Hatchimonji, the EnergySmart residential services manager for Boulder County, said the “people first” approach has been “wildly successful – because we meet the customers where they are. You can throw all kinds of incentives at the problem of energy inefficiency, but without an energy adviser to guide you, the efficiency work won’t get done.”

Conversion rate without concierge: 20% to 30%

Conversion rate without concierge:
20% to 30%

Residential customers are keenly interested in using energy wisely, which puts pressure on utility regulators and utilities to satisfy those aspirations. Having an energy adviser can close the gap between expectations and reality. In Boulder County, energy advisers do their work over the phone, in person or via email, he added.

Energy efficiency programs lacking an energy advisor will only turn 20% to 30% of customer inquiries into completed projects, according to Matt Wilmoth, a CLEAResult senior program manager for Colorado. But adding energy advisers to the mix will boost conversion rates to 50% in the first year, and 60% in the second year.

I’m not a math guy, but it looks like adopting a concierge model will make you lots of friends in the Finance department.

CLEAResult has over 2,500 employees in 50 offices around North America, Wilmoth noted. The company recently acquired Conservation Services Group (CSG), a leading residential energy efficiency provider with a commanding presence in the Northeast.

“Money is not a show stopper when it comes to residential energy efficiency upgrades,” Wilmoth told me. “The main challenges are proving the business model can scale and finding the right people to be energy advisers.” He said “people people” with an affinity for the Liberal Arts or the Humanities tend to make great energy advisers.

You can learn more about CLEAResult’s “People First. Buildings Second.” approach by checking out an archived webcast on the topic. Or you can check out this blog post on the topic from last February. If you’re into informational bite-sizing, check out this page on the CLEAResult website.

Or just pick up the phone and call CLEAResult. If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to increase customer participation in your utility’s energy-efficiency programs, help is only a call away.

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Preventing PR Pain for Energy Communicators

Egan Energy PR Report Cover ShadowCommunicators that work for utilities or oil & gas companies have their work cut out for them. Communicating effectively with the public on controversial energy matters like “Smart Meters” and “Fracking” is really hard. We don’t know of any company that has done everything right. And some companies have made communications mistakes that were, in retrospect, pretty elementary. Want to avoid making those same mistakes? Check out this article published in Natural Gas & Electricity.

Go here to get a copy.

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