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Why home energy audit programs should go virtual - and mobile

Co-authored by Laura Gousha, VP of Engagement, Mindgrub; Phil Croskey, CEO & Co-Founder, MD Energy Advisors


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to change how we work, learn, and play. For many of us, our homes have become the epicenter of everyday life. The direct result of Americans spending more time in their homes is higher energy consumption - and costs. 

Many utilities across the country offer incentives for home energy efficiency evaluations, but the idea of inviting an energy auditor into your home to conduct an energy audit right now is at best, unappealing, and at worst, life-threatening. Before the pandemic, an energy auditor could conduct a walk-through in your home, checking the lighting, HVAC, hot water tank, and insulation. In a virtual home energy audit, however, the auditor can guide the customer remotely through the same process as they would during an in-person visit, without any of the risk. 

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Several leaders in the utility space are beginning to offer virtual energy audits to assist customers during these unprecedented times. The benefits are clear for the customer: Improving home energy efficiency can reduce energy costs anywhere from 5% - 15%, depending on the efficiency measure, and there is minimal investment needed from the homeowners. 

It’s worth noting that introducing a virtual energy audit program isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Utilities looking to develop virtual energy audit programs must first assess their existing digital ecosystem and determine whether or not they could implement a virtual audit initiative within that integrated environment.  

Organizations with custom-built, customer-facing mobile applications are particularly well-positioned for the shift to virtual energy efficiency audits. Here’s a breakdown of how a virtual home energy audit program could easily be incorporated into an existing mobile app experience:

Building Program Awareness and Enrollment

Energy efficiency programs, no matter how great their potential for customer success, aren’t worth much if customers don’t enroll in them. It’s unrealistic to expect customers to enroll in a brand new initiative when their only interaction with their utility is through their monthly bill. 

The 2019 report Engaging Utility Customers in the Digital Age determined that customers who are more aware of utility programs are significantly more satisfied than those who are not. The more digital communications channels and touchpoints through which you can introduce the home energy audit program, the more likely the customer will be aware of the program itself and the more likely he or she will be to enroll. 

Mobile applications, in concert with relevant and timely emails, website alerts, and SMS messages, are one of the most effective channels for program enrollment for utilities. Through custom alerts, timely and relevant push notifications, and customized content on the app dashboard, utilities can increase the likelihood that the customer will opt into the energy audit offering while also making it easy to schedule, conduct, and monitor the effects of the audit itself from the same device. 

Simplifying Appointment Management 

Integrating your appointment scheduling system with your utility’s mobile app gives customers a fast and easy way to sign up for, reschedule, and confirm a virtual auditing session while also eliminating the need for customer service team members to arrange an appointment over the phone. 

Making touchpoints completely “self-service” is one of the most significant contributors of overall utility customer satisfaction, as is the low level of effort required to enroll in programs like virtual home energy checks. 

In a world where over a third of people forget and miss appointments, having the ability to send reminders via push notification where they won’t get lost in a crowded email inbox or recycled with other physical pieces of mail ensures enrollees participate in the energy audit itself, reap the benefits of the audit findings, and walk away feeling satisfied with their utility experience.

Integrating with Video Conferencing Providers 

Building a full platform to support video calls is a significant undertaking, but it’s not the only way to facilitate live (but remote) home energy audits. There are a number of highly secure, performant, and flexible video conferencing solutions that can be integrated into a utility’s mobile application. Many can be whitelabeled, as well, for a consistent, on-brand experience. 

Conducting the virtual audit via mobile application is a better fit than via desktop computer, landline phone, or even through a mobile responsive website because: 

  • The customer can move around to allow for inspection around the home
  • The auditor can visually inspect areas in the home to identify opportunities for improvement
  • The customer can begin the audit from the app itself (rather than after entering a URL and navigating through multiple screens), even without WiFi access, if necessary
  • The auditor can deliver a more personalized experience to the customer and respond in real time to questions and concerns

Maintaining Engagement Over Time

Reports on how usage has decreased after a customer implements recommended changes, relevant tips to increase energy efficiency, and customer service follow-up communications can all be delivered via a mobile application. 

In addition to live virtual assessments with a trained representative, utilities can also develop fully self-service audit programs, whereby customers can use technologies like augmented reality and the phone’s built-in camera to walk themselves through the experience whenever it’s convenient for them. Customers can take images of their appliances to be reviewed by an audit team later, or they can compare those images to photographs representing the standard for energy efficiency. 

“Research has shown that energy efficiency is of ever-growing importance to utility customers,” states Mindgrub’s Vice President of Engagement Laura Gousha. “Energy efficiency programs reduce costs for customers and have been proven to impact energy usage across the board, but the way these programs are administered can make or break a program’s success. Having a mobile application through which you’re already engaging with customers makes it easier for utilities to enroll participants in a virtual home energy audit program, reduces the time to market for these new programs, and creates a closed feedback loop through which you can understand how your program can be optimized over time to meet customer needs.”

This sentiment is echoed by MD Energy Advisors CEO Phil Crosky: “Everyone is contending with how to best implement energy efficiency programs in the era of COVID-19 while also meeting cost effectiveness targets. We truly believe that virtual energy audits will become the “new normal” as utilities look to reimagine how they deliver residential and commercial programs.”

How Virtual Home Energy Audits Can Impact the Bottom Line

It’s well documented that encouraging behavior that decreases utility customers’ energy usage at scale helps companies meet regulatory requirements and contributes to grid operational efficiency, but the impact of a home energy assessment program can also be measured in terms of the overall customer experience. 

According to research conducted by PwC, there are real consequences to an experience that doesn’t meet or exceed customer expectations. On the importance of customer satisfaction, the report stated, “Customers who trust their utilities are less likely to turn to disruptive competitors,” among other markers of loyalty. 

Furthermore, according to the same report, “Regulators granted utilities in the bottom quartile of customer satisfaction ratings a lower percentage of their requested rate of return than utilities in the top quartile.” 

Introducing a digital option for home energy audits via your utility’s mobile application is but one of the ways that companies can improve and maintain their measures of customer satisfaction, but during and after the era of COVID-19, it could be one of the most powerful differentiators of all.

Laura Gousha's picture
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 20, 2020

Have you run into issue with hesitant customers-- perhaps the less tech inclined or somehow worried about data-related privacy? 

Laura Gousha's picture
Laura Gousha on Dec 1, 2020

Hi Matt, Privacy concerns are certainly a potential issue. There will be customers who have concerns about recordings related to their home. We have heard that some customers indicate that having someone physically in their home is more concerning than a virtual visit so it really will depend on that customer's comfort levels. Noting these concerns, it is incredibly important to include language in the program enrollment page to reassure the customer that their data will not be misused, is securely handled, and that it is fully optional. 

Kristen Jaeger's picture
Kristen Jaeger on Nov 24, 2020

Even if a virtual audit is conducted, wouldn't it be necessary to still have people in the home to complete the necessary work that is not as easy as changing out light bulbs (for example, insulation)?  If there are concerns regarding having people in the home to conduct the audit, there is a possiblity that the homeowner will not follow through with the recommendations, and the benefits are only seen when the work is complete.

Laura Gousha's picture
Laura Gousha on Dec 1, 2020

Hi Kristen, This is certainly a concern for certain recommendations that would be a component of a standard home energy audit (for example, replacing out windows, etc.). The virtual audit will need to be refined to fit the context of the pandemic conditions (both in terms of what can actually be audited in the virtual space accurately, as well as what recommendations would be made). It will be important to include audit findings that a homeowner can generally implement themselves, at lower costs (i.e. switching out light bulb brands, installing a smart thermostat). It is also important, now more than ever, to make sure there are recommendations that will not be cost-prohibitive. Tying the recommendations into the utility's marketplace, which may offer strong rebates, is also very effective. 

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Nov 30, 2020

Laura - for longer term engagement and improvement, actual monitoring of usage adds tremendous value.  Many/Most homes now have Smart Meters that provide 15 minute interval usage data which can be indicative of the largest loads - cooling, electric water heaters & appliances - mainly by size and time of use.  I would hope that utilties could provide some simple analytics to use this data and then make the customer aware - very high level but pretty much free once the analytics are developed.  Analysis of the Smart Meter data should be a big step to ID those with energy efficiency opportunities - very high summer loads - cooling, similar for winter and heating.    

The next step would be on-site monitoring, suppliers like Sense have a simple install, most will require electrician, but only one monitor required and then the system can ID most of the loads.  These devices are now quite inexpensive - $350 - the site visit and install probably doubles this but I suspect that most site inspections cost the utilities a similar amount and they get no long term monitoring nor engagement.  This maybe be useful only for the largest customers.   Certainly offering these devices at a low cost or even for a monthly fee could be value added. 

Laura Gousha's picture
Laura Gousha on Dec 1, 2020

This is a great point. Usage monitors, as well as smart meters, have provided a wealth of information that can help customers reduce their usage and save. Typical home audits will make recommendations on the addition of these devices to homeowners, exploring their benefits. In addition, many of our utility partners have built out marketplaces for both residential and commercial customers to provide these monitoring devices with rebates and other cost benefits. We also recommend that utilities consider how they can provide this information to the customer in a meaningful, impactful way through various digital platforms. For example, we have worked with clients to implement high usage alert push notifications through the utility mobile application. 

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