Smart Grid Strategy: Utilities Need to Engage Both Customers and Employees

Smart Grid Strategy: Utilities Need to Engage Both Customers and Employees

While customer backlash in smart meter rollouts has created bad PR for utilities in some cases, utilities should rely on a tried-and-true messaging philosophy when deploying smart grid programs: Keep it simple.

Such advice comes from a report to be released today by the Smart Grid Customer Collaborative (SGCC), an Atlanta-based independent organization made up of utilities, non-profits, and technology developers.

The report, "Excellence in Consumer Engagement," includes research and analysis of 150 "mature" smart grid programs with deep-dive interviews into 21 specific utilities.

Report coverThe 10 themes addressed in the report provide utilities a checklist of best practices in smart grid deployments, ranging from building trust ("fostering goodwill establishes a foundation for success") to advanced customer targeting ("attitudinal segmentation may improve program messaging").

But a fundamental message throughout was the most successful customer strategies kept the message simple and clearly stated the benefits to encourage enrollment and limit complaints, said Patty Durand, executive director of the SGCC. The analysis concluded that customers respond positively to a staged series of benefits, where benefits can be seen in a 3-6 month time period.

Internal employee education was another clear takeaway, underscoring successful efforts that took a holistic view of the smart grid in business strategy. "The most successful utilities made [smart grid programs] part of the business, integrated into operations and customer service," said Durand.

As an example, Durand pointed to San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), which restructured its business units in an effort to educate all employees on the smart grid. Putting an emphasis on call-complaint resolution, SDG&E created a specialized customer service team, sympathetic to customer concerns, and developed new metrics to resolve complaints within two or three days versus two weeks.

SDG&E focused on all customer touchpoints. Noted in the report, SDG&E workers followed up in the weeks following smart meter installations to answer questions and proactively address potential customer complaints. As a result, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) received far fewer complaints from SDG&E customers compared to other utilities in the state.

So does the detailed analysis of successful rollouts and supporting evidence outlined in the report mean the smart grid may be further along than some believe? Yes, says Durand: "Our research presents a big picture and body of knowledge to successfully engage customers. We don't need more [smart grid] pilots, we have an understanding of what works."

As for customer complaints about smart meter data and security, Durand points out that data vulnerability is not unique to the utility industry (see: banks, healthcare).

And she reassures customers the most successful utilities "have a universal belief that data is protected. While the quantity of data will increase [with smart grid deployments], nothing will change in the efforts to protect data in the future as they do now," said Durand.

Smart grid photo by Shutterstock.