On May 18 at the Low Income Energy Issues Forum (LIEIF) workshop in Pittsburgh, I presented a new model that I hope will foster a breakthrough in policy discussions. Participants included consumer advocates, regulatory staff, independent and utility program managers responsible for supporting disadvantaged communities. Even though I only had a few minutes to introduce the concept to the group, I was delighted to hear multiple people refer back to “the quadrants” in their subsequent remarks throughout the two days. That validated for me the model works because people could easily apply it in reference to the needs of their customers, policy positions, and programs.

 

Inspired by conversations at the LIEIF gathering in Dallas last October, this framework was developed for use in a research study sponsored by DEFG, where I examined sales tactics used by industries with predatory participants (such as payday lenders, subprime auto sales, online casinos, reverse mortgage underwriters) that are very successful in targeting at-risk communities. The question we asked: are there ways these tactics can be applied in a supportive and constructive manner? I will write another blog with more detail but the short answer is YES.

 

To create the framework, I first identified mindsets of financially disadvantaged consumers to reflect varied reasons why people might struggle to pay their utility bills.

  • Desperate: insolvent, no hope of being able to meet basic obligations
  • Changed fortunes: people who had middle class incomes but lost jobs
  • Frugal: husbands limited resources carefully and with great restraint
  • Paycheck to paycheck: income supports existence without reserves to absorb unexpected shocks
  • Resourceful: manages limited resources creatively, barters, bargains
  • Juggler: variable income, “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” i.e. forced to choose medicine vs rent or utility based on cash on hand
  • Dependent: Relies on kindness of strangers, charities or government to survive
  • Under water: would pay if could, may be poor money manager
  • Gambler: manages limited resources badly while trying to game the system
  • Scofflaw: truly delinquent, could pay but spends resources elsewhere
  • Careless: has funds but manages them poorly

 

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I mapped these mindsets by intention vs ability to pay and then simplified the map into solvency segments (“the quadrants”) so distinct policies could be discussed and programs designed to effectively meet diverse needs.

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Why a breakthrough is needed

Last week’s workshop reflected the following perspectives that must be reconciled in order to achieve better policies and encourage common ground among stakeholders:

  • Consumer advocates are legitimately concerned about new policies and technologies that utilities and vendors want to introduce.  Advocates are striving to protect overwhelmed vulnerable residents who they fear may not be able to take advantage of the investments in upgraded infrastructure;
  • Disconnection rules are financially justified by utilities to prevent irresponsible customers from taking unfair advantage of protections and seasonal moratoriums which increase costs paid by other customers and shareholders;
  • Investments in Smart Grid-enabled options (pricing, payment, technology) allow positive opportunities for supported and independent low-income consumers as well as offering societal and operational advances (integration of renewables, resilience, outage detection and restoration, efficiency) that benefit everyone.

 

8 actionable solutions for utilities validated by other industries:

  1. Offer VIP loyalty and incentive programs for people who pay bills on time and discounts for those who pay for service in advance;
  2. Recognize that everyone responds to convenience, respectful customer service, clear eligibility guidelines, and authentic, empathic messages.
  3. Link timely payment behavior to credit rehabilitation and establishment of positive credit scores. Positioned as a carrot on a voluntary basis, this practice would be especially valuable to unbanked and young consumers;
  4. Enable as many people as possible to move from the overwhelmed zone into the supported group by simplifying enrollment in assistance and discount programs;
  5. Connect irresponsible customers with reputable partners identified by the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)  that offer money management guidance and education;
  6. Provide more lenient payment deadlines and arrearage forgiveness terms for those making sincere and consistent efforts to use energy more efficiently;
  7. For the truly needy who can’t shift load or reduce usage due to health constraints or sub-optimal housing, offer hedged flat rates and require only minimal payments by leveraging charitable crowd funding techniques and platforms to offset cost of service;
  8. Use a combination of self-selection, volunteered information, CRM (customer relationship management) systems, and data analytics to facilitate segment visibility and differentiated support.

 

In listening to the workshop participants describe their most successful programs, it is clear there are examples already in use today that reflect these lessons.  I’m writing a white paper on my research and best practices and will be presenting “Lessons Learned from Other Industries” at the NARUC Summer Meetings in Nashville, TN in July.

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I’d been meaning to buy a new outdoor table and chairs for my backyard to replace the set I’d inherited from my mother 18 years ago, but I kept procrastinating.

 

An elegant and simple email promotion (20% off Outdoor Furniture) intrigued me enough to look at the Crate & Barrel website. The link took me right to the relevant page. I saw several options that looked great. Five follow-on emails kept the sale visible to me but it wasn’t until a visiting friend wanted to order a couch that I finally made it into the store.

 

As soon as we walked in the front door, I saw a set I liked. My friend and I chatted with a sales associate who was ready to greet us and answer questions. We rearranged different color chairs and tested them for comfort. The associate explained how the table folded up and gave her opinion on my desire to mix two different colors of chair seats.

 

I walked through the rest of the store looking at alternatives. There were lots of lovely designs but the first set seemed the best fit for my small pergola. The sales associate who’d been helping us used her point of sale iPad to confirm the pricing, checked the inventory on the computer at the register (the table was in stock but the chairs had to be ordered), and processed the sale. She personally tagged the table in the storeroom for pick up, gave me both a printed receipt AND emailed me a duplicate receipt.

 

A few days later, another person called me with a message that the table and chairs were ready for pickup. When I called back to say that I already had the table, the sales person told me all the chairs were there and apologized for the misunderstanding. I forwarded the email receipt to my husband who went over to the store but they only had two of the chairs.

 

I called them again. Now at this point I might have become annoyed. However, the saleswoman was extremely apologetic, took responsibility for the miscommunication, offered to deliver the other chairs at no charge when they came in, and thanked me for my business. A few days later, she called to say the other chairs had arrived and did we want them delivered? When I said it was easier for us to pick them up, she again apologized for inconveniencing us, and said they would offer us a gift certificate towards a future purchase. As a result, I am a very happy satisfied customer who will recommend Crate & Barrel and the specific store to my friends.

 

Ten lessons for the utility industry

I’m currently working with DEFG and ten utilities that sponsor the UCRC (Utility Consumer Research Consortium) to develop a new customer satisfaction metric that complements those in widespread use. We are building on techniques used in other industries to create a CX-Effort Score tailored and actionable for a range of utility operations. My experience with Crate & Barrel is relevant to that endeavor.

 

  1. Uptake is higher when a choice among options is offered*—There were several alternatives that allowed me to choose a product to fit my priorities: design, comfort requirements, price point, and space limitations. (*SGCC ED Patty Durand, in Smart Grid Today discussing their Empowered Consumer research)
  2. Multiple touch points contribute to adoption—It took one email to drive me to their website, but multiple contacts before I actually made it into the store. In general, good integrated marketing campaigns reinforce different perspectives on key messages so when the “right” trigger occurs—in this case my friend’s request which was not controlled by the seller—it will prompt action.
  3. Motivations vary—The discount was a bonus but it wasn’t the compelling reason to close my sale.
  4. Provide two-way conversation and guidance—The sales associates answered my questions about how this product would work for my specific situation.
  5. Good systems improve the experience for customers and employees—It was easy to process my order, send receipts via my preferred channel, and track the outstanding items and pickups (i.e. it was easy to do business with Crate & Barrel).
  6. Follow through—In this case, a metric like First Contact Resolution (FCR) would not give a useful assessment. They could not fulfill my order when I visited the store and had some miscommunication in secondary calls, but by the end of the process they resolved my issues to my satisfaction.
  7. Take responsibility and apologize for errors—their staff never said to me “I’m sorry you feel that way” which seems to be a frequent customer service response these days. They acknowledged they had made mistakes, which removed my annoyance and transformed a negative into a positive.
  8. Communicate you value the customer’s feedback—They let me know they valued me as a customer and cared about my opinion. I was able to express my appreciation in my own words VOC (Voice of the Customer) on an issue that might not appear in a general survey and give them feedback via a card that solicited open comments.
  9. Satisfied customers are more like to sign up for other offerings—Because I was having a good experience in the store, it encouraged me to purchase other items that I might have put off.
  10. It takes a great customer journey to encourage someone to recommend a business to others—Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a commonly used metric that is not always relevant to monopoly industries. However, it is relevant when focused on specific transactions and how the company resolves the issue. Based on this experience, I will definitely speak positively about Crate & Barrel to my friends.

 

If you would like to know more about the UCRC CX-Effort Score as an alternative customer satisfaction metric and would like to be part of the initial benchmarking effort, please let me know and I’ll introduce you to DEFG.

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This weekend I attended a very joyous wedding celebration for two long-time friends. At the reception, I ran into Pierluigi Zappacosta who we had interviewed extensively for his role as one of the founders of Logitech on the occasion of the company’s 25th anniversary. A pioneer in the personal computer industry, Logitech built a multi-billion dollar global corporation by innovating on the last inch that connects the consumer with now ubiquitous computing power and the Internet.

 

While speaking with Pierluigi, I realized the thermostat is the “Mouse for the Smart Grid.” This physical touch point enables a consumer to translate intention into the demand that sets all the wheels in motion. And whether that touch is communicated via an app on a tablet, smartphone, or a device on the wall, the same opportunity to innovate from that simple and modest premise exists.

 

What we are seeing with the transition from manual to programmable and learning thermostats, is just the beginning. With intuitive interfaces, relevant information, and pricing incentives an entirely different level of consumer engagement is possible.

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Despite the fact that word processors are ubiquitous and make it easy to write and edit, they don’t magically transform “users” into Ernest Hemingway. Being a great writer takes talent, practice, diligence, an unusual ability to observe and discern what language will be interesting to readers, and—if you are lucky—an excellent editor.

At a recent meeting with some of the best utility marketing execs in the industry, the discussion turned to the use of video. One person for whom I have tremendous respect commented how incredibly affordable video is now, naming an extremely low figure. I tried to suggest to my assembled colleagues that there is a big difference between user-generated content using a cell phone video app and a Hollywood movie. The former may have an important role to play in customer engagement, but there is value in having professional directors, editors, lighting and sound specialists, and writers who understand the content.

Good production values add to the viewer’s enjoyment of a video and while rough or raw capture techniques can be used creatively (think “Blair Witch Project”), it takes skill and knowledge to craft a compelling story—especially when the subject matter can be perceived as boring to the target audience.

Your local wedding videographer may have a great eye and a good camera but without sufficient content knowledge, it’s difficult to draw out the best succinct quotes from subjects (especially non-actors) during interviews and assemble clips together in a way that both feels authentic and tells a compelling story.

It’s easy to capture people’s attention with a cute puppy even if the sound, lighting, camera work are poor and there is no narrative thread. It takes a lot more skill to interest the average person in something they usually ignore.

Here are a few of my personal favorites from big ad agencies. They may not be cheap but they are very funny:

Digs
This piece by Schematic for Reliant Energy won the 2012 Griddie Award from the Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid.

All Powerful
This series of ads from the Atkins Agency for CPS Energy (a muni from San Antonio, TX) are worth watching.

Ridiculous Waste
DDB Canada was the agency for BC Hydro’s PowerSmart campaign

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It sounds nice but what does that really mean in practice? While conducting interviews for several case studies, it’s become apparent to me that some corporate cultures are better than others at cultivating customer awareness.

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There’s nothing like attending a major news event like the announcement for the Green Button initiative, only to have the CTO of the United States, tell you in front of the whole world that you’re “dead wrong” during the Q&A.  As someone who likes to ask tough questions, it does go with the territory. This time I asked why DOE was only funding support for GB promotion and had pulled their previous FOA for community engagement activities that reached broader audiences?

 

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Actually, after 25 years in business, it’s more like 4.0 or 5.0.  When To the Point was founded in 1987, I wanted to help companies align their organizations.  The guy at the top would have this great vision and ideas and then by the time they filtered through all the executives, the people doing the work were getting lots of mixed messages.

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