We in the electric utility industry are living in an era filled with new technologies and new competitors. This means we have to recalibrate our thinking on the relationships public power utilities have with our retail customers. Traditionally, our job was “to keep the lights on and the beer cold” — and the rates low. That last part went without saying. But while providing reliable and affordable electric service may have been enough in the past, it no longer will be.
Our retail customers are no longer going to be content with “plain old electric service.” Over time, more and more customers will want to use technology that monitors and controls their electric usage. They’ll want to tell Siri or Alexa to pay their electric bill. They’ll invest in their own on-site power and storage facilities so they never have to experience an outage.
Large corporate customers will also have new requirements. Companies like Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Walmart are demanding green energy. As Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “Protecting our planet and driving economic growth are critical to our future, and they aren't mutually exclusive.” Many of our industrial and commercial customers are following the lead of these large companies and talking about aggregating their demand to purchase renewable power. If we as utilities do not help our customers meet these goals, they will do it themselves.
So we as utilities are going to have to up our game. To do this, we will need new business partners and new skills. We are going to need help from others, from both inside and outside our ranks, to develop the skills and services we need to meet our customers’ rising expectations. This is no easy task.
Our workforce is already adapting to change. Ten years ago, how many of you had employees whose job it was to keep up with social media and respond instantly when you had outages? Now, if you don’t do this, you can expect your utility’s reputation to suffer.
In addition to hiring employees with new skills, we are going to have to partner with others to provide the services retail customers want. Just look at what’s happening in the world around us. Consider Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods — so that Amazon can “deliver any and every item that customers could possibly want or need," groceries being no exception.
Within public power, joint action agencies and state associations are helping utility members provide new retail services. They are offering their members energy efficiency programs, distributed generation, and turnkey AMI and billing solutions.
As we roll out new service options to retail customers, we must remember that our job is not to tell our customers what to do. After all, they own us, not the other way around. And they are not all alike. Some will want these new services while others will struggle simply to pay their bill. We have to be prepared to provide options and to explain the pros and cons of each option.
We also increasingly will see retail customers who want to cut the cord — or think they want to. Our role as their utility service provider is to help them explore their options and to educate, engage, and explain the full consequences of their actions. Our goal should be to become our customers’ trusted energy advisors.
If you have built a strong relationship with your retail customers by providing attractive and affordable service options, top-flight customer service, and supporting the community and its values, chances are they will turn to you to help them make these decisions.
But for that to happen, we need to know our customers and build real connections. Talk to your neighbors, strike up conversations at the grocery store, go to the local ball game, support the science fair, speak to community groups, join the Fourth of July parade, and invite the community to come and visit you during Public Power Week.
You can’t run a public power utility from your desk. To power strong communities, we must be out in our communities. The more we connect, the more our customers will see the value of their local public power utility.