Customer Service

When giving is getting: Engaging customers with data

When a customer called Tennessee public power utility BrightRidge after a bitterly cold spell to complain about higher than normal bills at an unoccupied house, the utility used a little detective work to find the answer. 

The utility’s customer service department was puzzled at first when it looked at bills that seemed to be much higher than expected, especially since the customer had fled south and had set back thermostats to conserve power. 

“Having good data paid off. We were able to examine their usage and eventually discover that they had not removed some resistance heating units, so when the temperature dipped below a certain level, they kicked in,” said Jeff Dykes, CEO at BrightRidge. 

It might seem like a small victory, but Dykes, whose utility has won recognition from Tennessee Valley Authority and the American Public Power Association for innovations benefiting its roughly 77,000 customers in a rural but fast-growing region along the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, uses data to demonstrate a bigger point. He knows that public power utilities using more and better customer data can cut usage — BrightRidge has saved about $1 million a year — and engage and please customers at the same time. 

Jasper Schneider, vice president of member and industry at National Information Solutions Cooperative, a member-owned information technology company that serves public power utilities, said using such data gives power companies “smarter and more nimble operations.” 

“With the strong adoption of smart meters, the industry has evolved from only 12 data points a year about a customer, to now more than 8,000,” he said. “By examining and using that data, we can change the way we operate and dramatically change our connections to our customers.” 

In a very different service area than that of BrightRidge, Arizona’s Salt River Project is providing its approximately one million customers in and around Phoenix new services and more information based on the data it gathers from its more than two-decade push to modernize its grid. It uses smart meters, better analytics and more creative and useful responses to customer needs and preferences. 

“We are using this new technology in three ways. To give customers options for digital engagement, provide proactive and personalized communications, and give them a mix of pricing and payment plans,” said Michael Mendonca, senior director for revenue cycle services. “It has changed the way we do business.” 

And in southwest Tennessee, the Bolivar Energy Authority offers its 11,000 customers a web portal, phone application, prepay system, better customer service and improved outage management thanks to what Steve Herriman, purchasing and IT manager, said are growing efforts to focus on customer data.

Engaged customers mean more data 

SRP created a multifunctional web portal and a mobile application that is regularly used by about 122,000 customers. The portal allows customers to check daily costs, review personal usage, report and see outage information, and pay their bill, increasingly with an expanded and user-friendly prepay function. Approximately 155,000 SRP customers take advantage of the prepay option. 

“These tend to be highly engaged customers. They often pay multiple times a month,” said Glen Traasdahl, director of emerging customer technology at SRP. “And they want a lot of information, so if we showed them kilowatt hours, that’s great, but we knew they wanted more, and we went a step further and showed them their cost per day and cost per hour.” 

With more customer data, SRP was able to design a variety of price plans and show customers how each would benefit them based on their data. It also began providing a “shadow billing” feature that shows customers how much they would have saved under one of the utility’s time-of-use price plans. Additionally, the data has allowed SRP to create a range of pricing options, from using less power from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, to a prepay option, or one that benefits those who charge their electric vehicle at night. One third of its customers are now on time-of-use plans. 

Customers also can be warned about usage issues (the company tracks their usage over 36 months and reports anomalies) through alerts or when they view usage online, so they can adjust usage and are less likely to be surprised and aggravated by high bills. 

Herriman said Bolivar’s prepay option, which has significantly improved debt collection, is automated so that any payment directly activates the meter for customers who are behind in payment. But it also is increasingly used by other customers. 

“Prepay helped us offer a much better mobile application experience,” he said. “The app allows a customer to not only add funds to their account, but also gives usage history and even allows customers to report outages and add a photo of any damage.” 

Schneider noted how offering customers a prepay option provides a data-laden link between customers and the utility. He also said some industry reports show prepay results in, on average, 13 percent less usage.

A loop of information 

Schneider described a growing cycle of information where technology allows utilities to collect and sort through data, then offer services and platforms for customers to access and use it, which in turn provides more information on which the utilities can act. 

Increasingly, more sophisticated smart meters, advanced metering infrastructure, and meter data management systems are in place at public power utilities, and SRP is finding ways to use the data it obtains to reduce a load that can spike wildly on hot Arizona afternoons. 

Outage management generally has been enhanced with customer data from AMI systems that inform and populate outage management systems and an outage map on the utility site and mobile application. Herriman said customers are happy to get more and better information during an outage, and the utility can more quickly locate problems and, with a connected GPS, get repair crews underway faster. 

“We know in real time what is happening,” said Tim Whaley, a spokesperson for BrightRidge, which has a similar system. “If we have a handful of meters out in a single geographical area, we know it’s a very localized problem. If we have 1,000 meters out, we might glean that an entire feeder circuit from the substation may be impacted.” 

Customer down time has dropped 35 percent, and average outages per customer and time to restore an outage both dropped about one-fifth, all information that would previously have been difficult to track. 

In addition, Dykes said that for more than 5 years, BrightRidge’s AMI system has allowed the utility to handle some 65,000 transfers electronically rather than through site visits and make 30 percent of its disconnects online. It has even cut out 3,000 site visits for rereads or other investigations. 

“The system reduces truck rolls by about 20,000 a year, and it’s streamlined our back office operations,” he said. 

BrightRidge saved about $200,000 last year by pairing a system that handles sophisticated customer data and communications with water heaters. The Take a Load Off, or TALO, system is aimed at reducing unnecessary usage from hot water heaters and offers customers a rebate and free water heater maintenance in exchange for a load control switch on their tanks. The utility just installed its 5,000th system. 

“As a local power company within the TVA system, we pay a monthly peak charge based on the highest one-hour system demand for electricity, so this helps the customer and us control costs,” said Dykes. 

BrightRidge estimates that it can shed an average of 2.5 megawatts during high-demand periods and expects the system will save nearly $8 million by 2030.

Keeping customer data safe 

One issue has lately put customer data acquisition and use in a less positive light — security. 

Schneider said data protection should be a key consideration for utilities when they establish basic new structures that gather, analyze and use customer data — and when they add each new feature handling it. 

Schneider said he often recommends that utilities rely heavily on cloud-based systems to avoid problems an on-site server could have, such as physical security threats or out-of-date software. 

SRP makes a point to inform its customers about system security. “Protection begins at the meter itself,” it tells customers. “Proprietary meter protocols defend against hacking. Encryption is used at each step of the data transmission process: at the meter, during transit from the meter to SRP, and at SRP. The meters are password protected and meet the ANSI 12.21 and 12.22 security standards for communication.” (ANSI refers to the American National Standards Institute.) 

It adds that the “equipment SRP uses is completely removed from the broad internet” with a “separate system with firewalled access to the outside world.” 

Utilities should get consent about the use of data, make sure it is accurate, and control its availability while still making it readily accessible to customers. Utilities should carefully train staff who handle customer data and should regularly do audits and risk assessments.

Into the future 

Schneider said that while this data about customers is valuable now, it will become even more important in the future. 

Utilities “will increasingly have to understand their customers and their needs — and respond to them,” he said. 

“We aren’t just selling kilowatt-hours anymore,” he said, making a comparison between a taxicab, which simply transports riders, and Uber, which uses an array of data about riders. “The days of being about just generation and transmission and measuring success by the size of the load are gone. Now the benchmark has changed, and it’s about things like customer satisfaction and customer support scores. Information will be critical.” 

Schneider said utilities will need to not just collect data but find useful ways to use it, pointing to Amazon’s accomplishments as a company that has successfully enhanced the customer experience to a large degree by using customer information. 

“More and more often we are hearing from utilities who are saying ‘Give us tools that will make us look good with customers and serve them well — based on good information,’” he said. 

He expects to see more use of business intelligence, predictive analysis, and interfacing with smart homes, smart thermostats, and voice recognition, some of the areas SRP is exploring. 

“Our industry is changing so quickly. Who knows what it will look like in even 5 to 10 years?” said Dykes. “But we know providing customers service will be at the center of it, and good information will be critical.” 

Traasdahl said SRP will soon introduce hourly information for customers telling them what they’d save if they shifted usage to off peak, and the utility plans to continue to expand the customer’s ability to see their usage and respond. Dykes said utilities will need to take such steps to succeed. 

“Our customers will need to see beyond the meter,” he said.