By now it’s old news that the utility business model needs to change. According to Utility Dive’s 2016 State of the Electric Utility Survey, only 3% of utility respondents feel the utility business model does not need to evolve. Unsurprisingly, utilities are investing heavily in customer engagement. While the shape of the Utility 2.0 business model is unclear, one thing is certain: a key factor will be the building of strong customer relationships.
Utility engagement efforts, however, often miss a prime opportunity to interact with customers: during electric rate changes, especially as it pertains to net metering and new policies that impact rooftop solar. By providing information that helps customers understand how a rate change will impact their electric bill, and identify ways to mitigate those impacts, utilities can build trust with their customers.
A critical opportunity for engaging customers is approaching. Quickly.
2016 is poised to be a year of significant changes to residential electric rates. In response to flat load growth (the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that total electricity sales fell 1.1% in 2015 from the previous year), an increase in distributed energy resources (DERs) such as solar, and higher renewable penetration, many states in the U.S. are rethinking rate structures and net metering policies to better recover costs. These changes represent one of the greatest opportunities to engage customers to date.
Industry research indicates the best opportunities to engage customers include: billing, customer calls to the utility call center and new service requests. However, the upcoming wave of change in electric rate plans represents an opportunity that isn’t receiving much attention. Electric rate plan changes can impact not only utility-customer pocketbooks, but also the lifestyle of those customers who may need to change when and how they consume electricity to maintain or reduce their monthly bill amounts.
Engaging the energy enthusiast: Solar customers and NEM 2.0
Rate changes that impact solar customers, in particular, represent an important opportunity to dramatically alter your customer relationships—for better or for worse. Solar customers are typically one of the most engaged customer segments: they’ve taken a personal interest in their electricity source, and made substantial financial investments in their photovoltaic (PV) system.
By providing bill impact transparency, along with guidance on behavioral changes and secondary technologies that will support ROI (such as smart thermostats, heat pump hot water heaters or even an electric vehicle), utilities can nurture the relationship with these important customers.
When customer engagement is overlooked during these transitionary periods, the door is opened for outside sources to inject misinformation. Proactive engagement during times of rate changes related to solar is an opportunity to provide objective, unbiased information and avoid negative reactions from stakeholders including customers, the industry and the press.
Tools and tactics for engagement
Previously we’ve highlighted how utilities that are reaching net energy metering (NEM) rate caps are being pressured to keep their home and business customers informed about whether or not they will qualify for a particular NEM rate—before a decision is made to install a PV system—through tools such as PowerClerk®. This transparency is imperative to avoiding customer frustration and building customer relationships during times of change.
Similarly, proactively advising customers that have already purchased a solar PV system about the impacts to their electric bill can help to facilitate conversation and build customer trust. According to Accenture ’s New Energy Consumer research program, today’s consumers prefer a do-it-yourself approach to interactions 70% of the time. Cloud services such as WattPlan® make it possible for utilities to engage customers on a whole new level—providing easy-to-understand, highly personalized information right from the utility website—in a digital, do-it-yourself format.
No matter the approach, any customer engagement strategy should be personal, interactive and understandable, while communicating options and showing return on investment for solutions that require an outlay.
Embrace the electric rate change opportunity
With states across the country on the precipice of substantial change to electric rate plans and policies related to solar and other DERs, utilities have a prime opportunity to engage customers with the personalized experience they have come to expect in this increasingly digitized world. Tools to support this type of engagement are available today like never before. Embrace the transition and reap the benefits of satisfied and engaged customers!