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Utilities missing out on personalized marketing opportunities?

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Utilities may be missing out on opportunities to market products to consumers in a personalized way and they are not alone, according to new research by the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC).

SGCC surveyed 2,000 consumers in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2016 to produce its latest study, "Customer Experience and Expectations." The study probes how utility customers react to smart grid technologies.

A key takeaway is that over half of the consumers surveyed believe that no organization -- not just utilities, but also banks, retailers and modern uber-type services -- excel at making personalized offers and suggestions.

"That is an area of opportunity for utility stakeholders," said Patty Durand, SGCC president and CEO, in an interview.

Personalized marketing uses customized data to pair product offers with the right customer at the right time. For example, data showing someone just moved into an older home might be used to target them for a new HVAC system. The same materials would not be shown to a customer who had just moved to a newly built neighborhood.

Durand says she is not suggesting that utilities engage in intrusive campaigns that stalk customers with product offers on their Facebook pages. But utilities might craft appropriate offers that appear on the customer's bill or show up when the customer logs on to the utility website, she said.

Today's consumers expect such personalized experiences, according to the study. And utilities are in a unique position "to apply the detailed information that the smart grid can deliver to make every inquiry more personal," the report said.

While utilities often are stereotyped as lacking innovation, consumers surveyed rated them in about the middle among industries considered. They are less innovative than banks, online retailers and communications providers, but more innovative than cable companies, other entertainment providers, doctors' offices, on-demand services, or home security companies, the report noted.

Banks appear to have heavily influenced consumer expectations, Durand said, given the advanced conveniences they offer, such as new apps to deposit checks via cell phones.

Utilities have not reached that level of innovation, "but we are all in agreement that the industry is changing rapidly to figure out what consumers want." By way of example, Durand pointed to her own utility, which now offers a product that unlocks your door via a cell phone when you approach home.

Such convenience and personalization is only part of the equation when marketing technology to customers. Monetary payback also is important, she said. Consumers want what Durand described as a "positive trade-off."

"They are not willing to give up their time or their money unless the program shows a pretty big payback," she said.

Lack of payback may explain why some consumer smart grid programs fail. Utilities "believe consumers are not interested, when in reality consumers did not see enough payback." Or utilities did not articulate the payback fully, Durand said.

The online survey presented six technology propositions to respondents. The propositions included: energy usage reports and incentives for shifting usage to off peak times; peak shifting programs; saving suggestions through an app/website; automated heating/cooling service; appliance evaluation for energy efficiency and incentives; energy evaluation, recommendations and incentives.

The study found that 33%-63% of consumers were interested in the technology propositions and 43%-60% were willing to pay for the them. This finding suggests that ample opportunity exists for utilities to engage customers with the product offers, the study says.
The survey also found that: (1) Consumers overwhelmingly prefer (74%) to buy their electricity from their current electricity provider; (2) Nearly one-third believe that none of the organizations named perform well in problem resolution and innovation; and (3) Utilities topped banks and all other services named when it comes to facilitating bill payment.

The study probed customer experiences with utilities during six interaction touchpoints, such as when they begin a new service or engage in remediating a problem.

The report's executive summary is available on the SGCC website.