The Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) wrapped up its 2021 Smart Energy Consumer Symposium yesterday. It was a fantastic, two-day, virtual event that brought together utility, research and policy professionals to swap ideas and workshop strategies for advancing the energy industry. Here are some of BlastPoint’s favorite moments!
Empathy and Flexibility
“Getting Customers Back on Track: Energy Assistance Programs” featured panelists from Smart Energy Water, Cobb EMC, Amaren Illinois and Itron. They discussed a variety of creative outreach methods that helped customers, struggling with financial hardship, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kris Delaney, VP of Marketing for Cobb EMC, said 12 percent of her utility’s customers pay their bills by cash, and have made great use of the drive-through payment centers they opened during the pandemic. Delaney explained the company prioritized being flexibility with customers, recognizing the importance of consistent outreach to let people know they have options.
Darren Brady, CCO of Smart Energy Water, echoed the point about flexibility, adding that his company built A.I. driven proactive outreach into its engagement practices. They used customer segmentation and personas to target customers with specific messaging, and generated bill forecasting tools and billpay alerts to keep customers informed about available programs.
Tucker Kennedy, Dir. of Communications and Public Relations at Amaren Illinois, told attendees his company put empathy at the forefront of everything to keep customers afloat. Call Center employees pivoted into counselor mode to help customers in economic distress. His team sent out newsletters, emails, social media posts and press releases about payment assistance programs. They actively engaged community agencies, where customers would typically apply for LIHEAP in person, to amplify messaging and partner on getting people enrolled virtually.
Chris Germano, Senior Product Manager at Itron, shared insights from his company’s Prepay Debt Recovery program, which helps customers manage expenses and lower energy consumption. The program, he explained, boosts customer satisfaction because people feel they gain more control over their usage while spending less money.
Overall, the panelists agreed that operationalizing data can be very helpful for engaging customers who have gotten off track. However, given the time crunch that accompanies crises, working toward data maturity in advance makes operationalizing data easier.
Learn more about operationalizing customer data during a crisis: Three Reasons Your Business Needs Household-Level Predictive Data
Equity and Environmental Justice for All
“Racial Disparities in Energy Among Lower-Income Communities” included panelists from ACEEE, Eversource Energy, Entergy and DNV. The discussion illuminated hard truths about racial and socioeconomic inequities that need to be acknowledged and solved, as soon as possible.
DNV’s Gomathi Sadhasivan, Dir. of Customer Decision Sciences, explained that programs like Budget Billing, designed to help lower income consumers save money, can actually increase consumption, thereby causing higher bill totals over the long term. Conversely, she said, autopay programs, typically utilized by financially stable customers, end up saving those households more money.
Ariel Drehobl of Energy Equity at ACEEE unpacked this urgent problem. According to her organization’s research, the energy burden on Black households is 43 percent higher than it is on white households. Whether that’s due to poor housing stock that’s a result of redlining, because of older, energy-inefficient appliances, leaky windows and doors, or some other cause continues to be explored.
One way Eversource Energy is solving that, though, explained Ruth Georges, Energy Efficiency Community Strategist, is through leveraging a Municipal Partnership Program. Eversource’s collaborative effort works alongside community organizations to engage the 65K hard-to-reach customers in its territory who are not digitally connected, live in environmental justice communities, and are unlikely to respond to direct mail or phone calls.
Trust, according to Georges, is a major factor keeping hard-to-reach customers from engaging with their utilities. When utilities partner with trusted community organizations, however, those same consumers are more likely to listen. Which means they’re more open to learning about the array of flexible payment arrangements and financial supports available.
Thomas Joyner of Entergy concurred. His company builds “symbiotic relationships” with local organizations to coordinate the flow of federal assistance dollars into the community. Entergy is also investing in multi-family residential complexes to infuse energy efficiency technology and tools as much as possible.
Engage + Electrify
“Debunking the Myths: How to Grow Consumer Adoption of Electric Vehicles” brought EV experts from SMUD, Fuels Institute, DNV and BlastPoint together to talk about ways to outfit transportation infrastructure for electric vehicles and steer more drivers along the EV curve.
BlastPoint CEO Alison Alvarez highlighted the growing trend toward higher EV ownership as the cost of electric vehicles goes down and more EVs become available on the secondary market. This, she said, will allow younger, lower-income consumers to enter the market–as long as infrastructure keeps pace.
Executive Director of the Fuels Institute John Eichenberger agreed. “We need consumers to be able to get electrification whenever and wherever they need or want it,” he said. That’s because younger people, renters in multi-family units and those earning lower incomes, will soon be transitioning to electric. And if the goal is to make EVs mainstream, he cautioned, we need to create messaging that’s not reliant on only environmental benefits of electrification. Instead, we need to create outreach that emphasizes cost reduction, safety and convenience if we want to achieve ambitious zero-carbon goals.
Sr. Strategic Business Planner of Electric Transportation at SMUD, Eric Cahill, Ph.D., concurred. He said the industry must “meet car shoppers where they are.” For utilities, that means generating new or different ways of engaging with customers–through pop-ups, banner ads, social media and elsewhere. He added that outreach can’t be a one-size-fits-all message if the industry wants everyone to “get in the game.”
Brian Lindamood, AVP of Marketing & Content Strategy at Questline, shared his research to support that claim. Appealing to consumers’ varying needs is key, he explained. Some want assurance about safety concerns while others will show more responsiveness to financial or environmental messaging. Knowing who those individuals are and what questions they want answered will move the needle to higher adoption.
Everyone on the panel agreed that more education is necessary for adoption rates to grow, especially at car dealerships, and that infrastructure development must take place in communities that have typically been overlooked when it comes to economic investment.
In other words, we have a lot of work to do if we are to avoid deepening the racial and income divide and, instead, close the gap to bring about energy equity for all.
Thankfully, given the incredible leadership and innovation shown at the SECC Consumer Symposium this year, it appears we’re headed in the right direction.
Join & Follow
If you didn’t get a chance to attend this year’s event, don’t miss it next year! Become a member to get valuable industry insights, access to webinars, tools and reports, and make sure to download any (or all!) of SECC’s resources. Follow them on LinkedIn and Twitter, too!
And if you’re ready to put artificial intelligence to work to up your company’s customer engagement game, please reach out to us. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about data integration for customer intelligence! Be sure to sign up for BlastCast, our e-newsletter, and make sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!