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Customers, not technology, are driving change in the utilities industry

Posted to Oracle Utilities

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Technology has enveloped us. We have smart devices inside and outside of our homes that share information with our power, water and gas companies every hour—sometimes several times an hour.

Many utilities are still struggling to understand what all this data means, and Oracle Utilities is always ready to help in that process. (That’s my usual pitch, and you’ve likely heard it before.)

Here’s my other pitch: We need to remember that it’s the utility customer, not the technology, that’s actually driving these innovations. Today’s customer transformation will have the most impact on utilities since Edison connected the first power plant in lower Manhattan over a century ago.

However, this customer transformation isn’t how to better deliver electrons, it’s how to understand and monetize the data utilities collect every second of every day in their service area. This is so much more than delivering electrons and billing for kilowatt hours. The commerce that utilities will conduct in the future is beyond electricity. We must use technology not just to make our companies better or smarter, but to be more responsive to a customer’s needs.

And the failure to do so will be very impactful. Large companies have designs on utility customers. These companies already interact with them daily, and have the means to step behind the meter and conduct business that utilities should be doing.

Granted, some utilities may not be ready for this type of business. Dealing only with electric power, gas and water delivery and suddenly having to manage huge amounts of customer data is a hard pivot. However, neglecting these customer desires will have dire consequences.

My personal feeling is that we should never give up a customer. Utilities are universally respected by customers. They deliver essential goods for our modern lives and economy. Most customers prefer to deal with a willing utility, trusting that their data is secure and never compromised. (Oracle is also a respected utility partner; our cloud service is a proven security measure of customer data.)

With this data, utilities have the ability to unlock some amazing opportunities. And the same customer that is seeking these services presents a unique opportunity. Connect with them, seek feedback, and learn from their desires. Every utility has this built-in base upon which to build a whole suite of services. Let’s take advantage of what these customers want today. And while there are a few customers wanting these services today, tomorrow it will be thousands throughout the service area. 

For instance, how many people use an app to order food and drinks from a fast food restaurant or a coffee shop? At first there were only a handful using these apps, but sit in any chain coffee shop and see how many walk in, pick up a drink and leave. These customers ordered and paid before entering the store, and never directly interacted with an employee. A utility customer is on the cusp of doing virtually the same thing: ordering services, changing rate plans or reporting a problem—all without making a phone call or sending an email.

 

Oracle Utilities, including our Opower brand, partners with the world's hardest working electric, water and natural gas companies to empower, enhance and enable your every single day. From cloud-native products and better grid management tools to support for every single step of your customer's journey, we have the answer.  Learn more at oracle.com/utilities. Get specific product information as quick as clicking right here.

Oracle Utilities
We're proud to partner with the world's hardest-working electric, water and natural gas companies to empower, enhance and enable your every day. From cloud-native products to support for every step of your customer's journey, we have your answer.

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 11, 2020

For instance, how many people use an app to order food and drinks from a fast food restaurant or a coffee shop? At first there were only a handful using these apps, but sit in any chain coffee shop and see how many walk in, pick up a drink and leave. These customers ordered and paid before entering the store, and never directly interacted with an employee. A utility customer is on the cusp of doing virtually the same thing: ordering services, changing rate plans or reporting a problem—all without making a phone call or sending an email.

Too true-- early on these apps were definitely ridiculed as unnecessary and even destined to fail, but they may be more the rule than the exception in certain situations. Will be interesting to see if utilities are as quick to see that paradigm flip!

Norman Sendler, Jr.'s picture
Norman Sendler, Jr. on Feb 18, 2020

Roger, it really is the technology development that is driving the customer interface; but that also brings up the age-old IT question, "just because you can doesn't mean you should"? 

Utilities, in general, have done a poor job of explaining the teriffic value and service they bring to their customers.  We're all spoiled; flip the switch and the lights come on, pretty much, 24/7.

And it is one of the few businesses where the bill is deliverd well past the time the service has been rendered. 

Technology could be used to address both these issues, i.e., with a glipse of real time use AND cost.  So if the AC is set to 72, there is a cost vs. when it's set to 78.  And reminders / notices can be sent to customers to highlight these sort of events.  Giving customers the ability to control costs in a "regulated environment" is a game-changer AND is / has only become available thanks to new technologies.

Michael Marullo's picture
Michael Marullo on Feb 18, 2020

Sorry, Rodger, but I beg to differ. During my 40+ years in the industry, I have been a student of market drivers, issues and trends. And, as you know, I've spent more than 30 of those years as a market researcher and advisor to practically all of the top automation suppliers and a broad cross section of other participants (e.g., consultants, sales channels, distributors, service companies, etc.).

The net result of that experience amounts to what some might deem an inconvenient truth. That is, customers and utilities alike depend -- to a very substantial degree -- on suppliers to provide the path(s) forward when it comes to technology in general and automation technology, in particular.

While it might seem that customers are driving the changes, I believe that is only true to the extent that they follow the lead of suppliers, which in turn, their utilities count on for education about technology issues and trends.

Frankly, over the years I've been repeatedly dismayed and disappointed that utilities go to ridiculous lengths to avoid contact with suppliers until they have a project need, at which time they suddenly welcome their attention (and free lunches/dinners) to discuss the latest and greatest technological advances. A lot of these folks repeatedly disparage the value of conference attendance/participation by labeling these vitally important opportunities to have hands-on demos and discussions with industry experts as nothing more than "a bunch of people wanting to sell me something" --  a generalization that just makes me cringe!

As far as end user customers go -- and this is also a generalization -- they are getting much more savvy in recent years as technology has increasingly become headline news. However, not many are really pushing the envelope without the groundswell of new information now at their disposal via the Internet -- a gushing fountain of information -- but again, facilitated in large part by the efforts of suppliers and to some extent, the utilities. 

To be clear, i is not my purpose here to rain on anyone's parade, but I feel that the role of suppliers in keeping fresh ideas, new technology and creative solutions in front of utilities and customers alike (primarily for free, I might add) has been grossly under-appreciated for far too long, Want a free tutorial on AMR? Call a supplier. Want to know how Blockchain technology is affecting utilities over a free lunch or dinner? Call a supplier. Want to learn how Big Data/Analytics can improve your bottom line... at no charge? Contact a supplier!

These are just a fraction of the myriad examples of the crucial role played by suppliers in moving utilities and customers into the 21st century -- often accompanied not by friendly cooperation but by much kicking, screaming and fighting to maintain the status quo! Try that with a customer, and you'll be lucky if they even answer their phone.

In summary, I believe that suppliers -- not utilities or customers -- are the (primary) unsung heroes of technology education, application and adoption. And as such, I think they deserve a lot more recognition than they have received to date.

Rodger Smith's picture

Thank Rodger for the Post!

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