What Matters Behind the Meter

Nine drivers to help energy providers build better relationships with their customers

In its latest research study on energy consumers, Accenture outlines nine characteristics of the new energy consumer — a list that clearly demonstrates we are no longer the “ratepayers” of decades past, or even the friendlier, more human-toned “customers to be served” of these transitional years in the energy industry. The new energy consumer, according to Accenture, now views energy as “more than a commodity — it has become a product, a lifestyle and a service enabler.”

As such, energy providers must start thinking about themselves as purveyors beyond the plug.

Energy providers must see themselves in the business of supporting and enhancing experiences on the forefront of people’s lives, as opposed to operating in the background offering services and living within the infrastructure.

But how? Creating relationships takes time. For an industry that’s just learning how to court and care for its customers after decades of simply collecting their money, the idea of “providing a lifestyle experience” may seem daunting.

It doesn’t have to be. By applying the principles of EMA’s Brand as Friend® philosophy (wherein we help brands forge meaningful relationships with their customers through nine scientifically proven friendship drivers), energy providers can begin thinking of everyday ways to build affection, relevance and trust with their customers.

Below, we’ve outlined a plan through all nine friendship drivers for getting your customers to see you less as a power-providing necessary evil, and more as an energy-providing lifestyle enhancer.

Build affection with your customers

Driver 1: Listening

Companies in all industries know that listening is a key way to hone in on the wants, needs and desires of their customers. Social media has provided an effective and powerful way to lean in and gather intel straight from the source — but listening is no longer about passively gathering information, it’s about starting the conversations that enable you to hear the right things in order to constantly fine-tune the way you service clients.

Social media can be used to actively explore and develop new ideas around energy. According to Accenture, customers are looking for that conversation — nearly one third of them are interested in following and interacting directly with their providers.

Driver 2: Surprise

Customers have heard the spiel that energy efficiency can save them money on their electric bills, but many remain unmotivated to do anything about it. Utility Dive recently reported on a study noting the impatience consumers have with topics like energy efficiency. An analyst who worked on the study was quoted, “People don’t want a lecture on energy efficiency. They want a road map and a guide. If I just give you a bunch of educational material, chances are you’re going to stop reading it.”

So what’s the alternative? Shut down the homework and power up the fun. As part of a recent study, California utility provider PG&E recruited 51 of its adult customers to play Power House, an online strategy game focused on saving as much energy as possible by performing daily tasks in a virtual home. The result? A 2% decline in household energy use during the game-playing period. While it’s only moderately significant from a statistical standpoint, it’s proof that exciting customers could be more productive than just educating them.

Driver 3: Caring

The strongest and most reliable piece of communication between the customer and the energy provider is definitely the bill. In a recent study, Opower reported that 79% of households say they read every bill, reviewing it for four to six minutes. It’s not shocking then to know that many utilities try to use this document as a venue to impart more information beyond just the “payment due,” but it might not be the best plan. According to Opower, the bill is also a major source of anxiety for many consumers, particularly for those who receive a higher-than-usual bill with no warning.

Show customers you care by going above and beyond “bill pay.” For example, consider offering additional products and services to customers with a smart meter. According to Accenture, the top three expectations smart meter consumers have are: “Personalized advice on actions I could take to reduce my bill” (58%), “Personalized advice on products and services that I could purchase to help me reduce my bill” (45%), and “Early notifications when my bill might be higher than normal” (41%).

Build relevance with your customers

Driver 4: Connecting 

When it comes to connecting, community is king — and not just in the “boots on the ground in the local scene” way, either. Online communities established through social media prove that “bytes in the cloud” can be just as fruitful for building relationships with consumers. Breaking Energy even declares that Social Media for Utilities is Becoming Indispensable in an article outlining the way social media can “blur the line between communications and customer service.”

As for the local scene, a major electric utility in the United States with over six million customers recently completed a private study proving that its consumers felt more trust and connection with their local utilities than with the parent company representing them — proving that while social media can give you the convenience of anytime-reach with consumers, social appearances still matter when it comes to truly making connections.

Driver 5: Story

Customers are used to seeing numbers from their utility company — after all, for decades the primary form of communication between them has been the “the bill.” As energy companies strive to strike up a conversation with consumers beyond outages and overages, it’s important to keep in mind that people tend to gravitate toward things they can emotionally relate to — and for many, numbers ain’t gonna set the mood.

Does your company have an interesting history? Have you done noteworthy and innovative things that lend themselves to a comfortable chair and a cold beer? Think of how you can talk about your company in a narrative, engaging way, rather than a business description. Maybe it’s a focus on the people who work in the company — the receptionist who has been there for 40 years and could tell you a thing or two about how the industry has changed within her four walls, or the service team that has climbed every pole within 40 miles of the plant. Humanize the business by painting a picture of people for consumers to connect with.

Driver 6: Style

Is your image as dated as your business model? As utilities become more engaged with consumers, it’s becoming imperative that they find ways to stay current and engaged with the people they serve. For example, having a social media presence is great, but if it’s pumping out content that says, “We’re just doing this because we think we should,” it will miss the mark. Find ways to freshen up your feeds with timely information, or perhaps offering the energy take on current trends. Beyond social media, it’s important to remember that anywhere you’re talking to consumers, you’ll get further with a style and tone that resonates with them. Use slang, try on the local vernacular or find simpler, more human ways to say things. Keep the corporate voice in the board room!

Build trust with your customers

While utilities are working toward creating better life experiences and improving the world around them, Edelman’s Trust Barometer indicates they will be working against the customer perception that their sole drivers for change center on technology, business growth targets and making more money. What’s more, the trust barometer shows that while 60% of people trust the energy industry as a whole, only 54% trust the utilities sector. That means building trust must be a priority for the modern energy provider.

Driver 7: Advising

Accenture reports that consumer interest for energy-efficient home improvements, home energy audits, home energy devices and bundled energy sources has risen significantly when comparing data from 2012 to 2014. Interest grew by nearly 10% for “products and materials to make simple improvements to your home in order to save electricity,” and “installation and/or maintenance services for home energy devices.” This suggests that consumers have an appetite for tips on how to be more energy efficient, so long as they aren’t too hard to handle.

Utilities can offer suggestions and ideas for consumers to try on their own before presenting more complex solutions down the road. Time the suggestions to seasonal elements (for example, how to save energy and stay cool during a heat wave), or find ways to share tips and advice on a more consistent basis with trending moments. Social media is a great way to pick up on a trending topic or idea that may be aligned with ways to be more energy savvy.

Driver 8: Honesty

Not surprisingly, consumers want their utility to provide thorough real-time information to them during outages. Accenture reports that 32% of consumers want to receive SMS/text messages from their utilities during these times with updates on when electricity, gas or water will be working again. The same report states that 92% of consumers want to receive digital notifications from their utility not just regarding outages, but information on their energy consumption, payments, and service request updates too.

But it’s not just about providing that information, it’s about providing that information easily through the right tools and user experience (on the web, etc.). Utilities will win if they make it simple for customers to access detailed information about their usage and potential service options to optimize the way they use energy.

Driver 9: Loyalty

When it comes to energy sources, consumers have more choices today than ever before. For utilities, building a relationship with consumers is now paramount in today’s world, because we’re getting closer and closer to a time when the utility may become obsolete. In a 2015 article titled “Power to the People,The New Yorker describes the new realities of solar power and lower electrical bills for the average middle class family. The article tells the story of one such family, the Borkowskis, who reduced the footprint of their house by 80% in a matter of days by implementing alternative energy solutions. As stated in the article, “The numbers reveal a sudden new truth — that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use.” Loyalty today isn’t about the customer sticking with the utility — it’s about the utility giving the consumer a reason to choose the utility as an energy provider.

For utilities to make it with modern consumers, they must turn the tables on the traditional relationship they’ve shared with them. Consumers can no longer be thought of as “meters” (as former NRG CEO David Crane suggests in the aforementioned article), they must be courted and cared for through consistent experiences that build affection, relevance and trust.