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#EEDay 2020. How Utility Customer Engagement is Changing in 2020. What are the ways the EE industry has changed in 2020?

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- by Karen Germain.

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The EE industry has had to respond to unprecedented changes in 2020. This article highlights how Customer Engagement has adapted to Covid-19. What other changes have you seen? Put your words in AESP-Energy Central's live interactive Word Cloud: PollEv.com/aesporg908. To see the LIVE results: https://www.aesp.org/news/528659/October-7-2020-is-EEDay2020.htm

 

How Utility Customer Engagement is Changing in 2020

Our conversation focused on innovation and customer engagement, and explored key elements of customer engagement supported by trade allies. While individual engagement strategies differ from one utility to another, there was resounding agreement from the panel in saying that balancing safety and engagement – between customers, employees and vendors -- was foremost.

Initial planning anticipated 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-day plans for customer engagement and program execution, while wrestling with the unknown impact of COVID-19 on society and business. Working with such a broad scope of operational, safety, community and business issues, utilities are continually reviewing their engagement strategies and protocols.


ENGAGEMENT

In-person engagement has been all but halted.  Utilities have pivoted their outreach and marketing strategies with budget redirection to online and virtual engagement, including online marketplaces. Early results are in and this redirection of budget is showing some positive impact. Kristol Whatley Simms, Director of Energy Efficiency at Ameren Illinois, said they are seeing between 60-70% increase in their email open rates, showing the rising attention toward digital engagement.

It’s important to note that utilities are also making additional efforts to support customers during COVID-19; examples include removing shipping costs from marketplace purchases, partnering with equipment manufacturers to get energy-efficiency equipment into the hands of homeowners, and  spending more time engaging with customers. With program outreach staff no longer committed to spending a significant portion of their day traveling from one meeting to the next, they are now able to focus on additional phone conversations. This newly available time is being spent helping review and finalize applications, problem solving and deepening relationships with trade allies and customers.

Some residential programs are directing their outreach staff to take the time to call residential customers, recognizing that during quarantine many customers are isolated and alone. While this outreach focuses on energy efficiency, utilities are seeing themselves as a community resource and when social or health concerns are noted in the conversations, those concerns are passed along to the relevant local agency or community action group.

Utilities are also looking to see how they can support their communities on a broader scale during COVID-19.  For example, Meals on Wheels was seeing huge strains on their staff and resources, with weekly deliveries at one local chapter going from 700 meals to 2,000 meals a week.  Ameren Illinois partnered with them and identified ways in which they could better support Meals on Wheels and the local community – to be where they are needed.


INNOVATION

Innovation has been key in adapting to the current situation…innovating with new processes, new decision-making parameters, and engagement standards. Eversource brought in outside experts EH&H, an environmental health and engineering firm, to help them adapt and innovate.  A repeating theme was innovating with technology – technologies we have been discussing and testing across the sector for several years but due to the energy industry’s inherent aversion to risk and slow pace of change, have been slow to roll out. Technologies such as virtual audits, where there was a focus on perfecting it before adoption, are now being adopted quickly with positive results. In a recent two-week window, Eversource conducted 2,000 virtual audits for their residential customers.

In adopting these innovations, utilities have had to change their normal risk profiles, which typically see them wanting to roll out proven, low risk, low error technologies. Accepting they now need to move more quickly, they may also accept more errors than normal in rolling out new technologies. Customer response has been positive – problems and all. Customers are appreciative of the innovations and express understanding of new technologies. Creativity applied to creating better engagement and more effective delivery are being recognized by both utilities and their customers.

With innovation and adaptation have come long conversations about budget. These conversations have meant analysis of outreach staff and customer engagement, incentive spend burn rates, increased emphasis of marketplace activity and marketing spend, and new omni-channel strategies.

Jennifer Gray of Eversource spoke at length about the significant efforts being put forth by the Eversource marketing team to be where the customers are – online -- and to ensure the greatest messaging impact during this time.

Key points of consideration are:

•    Keeping the customers’ perspective at top of mind
•    Balancing the unknown of how long the COVID- oriented messaging will be circulating
•    Recognizing there are going to be very different messages throughout the crisis
•    Keeping customers informed
•    Preparing for reopening (when the time is right)
•    Making sure messaging works across the various programs


The constant, daily examination of program operations decisions means marketing is having to work faster than ever to be prepared to direct their media buys.


With a heavy emphasis on digital marketing and its immediacy, marketing is driving the imperative that communications must be timely. During the crisis, utilities are posting and responding at a faster rate than normal owing to the need to provide relevant, transparent communication to customers and partners. It’s not enough to say a program is suspended; there must be regular and transparent communications about it.


The need for immediacy and innovation do not stop with just the digital channels. Hawai’i Electric revamped its industry-specific guidebooks, which outlines best practice to help them over the coming months. These guidebooks were designed to help the top sectors in Hawai’i reduce costs. While initially anticipating a short life span for these documents, Brian Kealoha of Hawaii Electric now recognizes that, with the continuation of COVID-19, that these guides may have a longer life span.


Recognizing that energy efficiency is not top of mind for its customers, Hawai’i Energy wanted to get ahead and prepare its customers for rising bills. They launched a two-pronged campaign approach to  effectively reach their customers:


1.    Educational messaging on how better to reduce usage
2.    Beyond behavior, what products can they use

Keeping engagement and innovation at the forefront, Hawai’i Energy also commissioned a trade ally survey in order to better understand how best to support their trade allies and customers. Among other findings, the survey found that 50% of trade allies had downsized staff, 37% had limited access to PPE and 57% were dealing with supply chain disruption.

NEXT STEPS

As we continue to work through the unknowns of COVID-19, three things become clear:

As an industry we have become more flexible and swifter in our decision-making, and, if we are going to continue to rise to the challenges of COVID-19, this must continue. Planning for reopening and the post-COVID scenario, means flexibility and a willingness to learn from our mistakes.

The bigger challenge will be the next 12-18 months as we grapple with the unknown and experiment with gradual reopening. And while customers and trade allies want stability, COVID-19 is mired in instability and varying guidelines. Utilities who understand their unique opportunity to act as a support mechanism in their community, and who engage with community partners and channel resources to them will strengthen their standing in these communities.

Marketing engagement will, for the foreseeable future, be on the forefront of customer relationships. The remote and virtual nature of engagement under COVID-19 means the customer experience (whether funded by marketing or operations) needs continuity with its messaging and timing of marketing. Energy efficiency has always been led by marketing with awareness campaigns that ease the door open for outreach to engage in traditional face-to-face relationships. However, for the foreseeable future marketing will not simply be awareness or a call to action – marketing is the driving force in customer engagement solutions and strategies.

Karen Germain has thirty years experience in marketing, outreach and stakeholder engagement working in the United States and Europe. She is currently Vice Chair of the AESP Marketing Topic Committee.

This article was contributed by the AESP Marketing Topic Committee.

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 6, 2020 10:43 am GMT

As an industry we have become more flexible and swifter in our decision-making, and, if we are going to continue to rise to the challenges of COVID-19, this must continue. Planning for reopening and the post-COVID scenario, means flexibility and a willingness to learn from our mistakes.

Hopefully a long-term outcome will be that flexibility becomes more of an everyday conversation rather than one where we're adapting as we're going-- 2020 has shown that you really don't know what might be coming next, so having flexibility as a part of all core conversations and in the DNA of EE programs will make adapting in the future easier and could uncover some surprising new opportunities that might not have happened if we remained static and complacent (virtual energy audits, for example). 

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