Smart Meters: Time for a Customer Service Reboot

Utilities, it’s finally time to come to terms with Bakersfield’s smart meter debacle. You would think that after PG&E’s experience no one would want to follow in the same footsteps,yet here we are — all these months later — witnessing a repeat of those events in Texas. Now it’s Oncor’s turn to deal with unwanted publicity and the cost of re-testing its meters. So what’s the lesson for utilities gearing up for smart meter installations? Simply put, the time has come to reboot your relationship with consumers.  Here’s how:
Leverage Social Networks
A Twitter account and Facebook page are low-cost, dead simple ways of interacting with customers and becoming part of conversations that involve your company. Sure, not everyone is a user or necessarily a fan of these services, but a utility’s presence on these popular social networks will bubble to the surface when someone embarks on some online research using Google, Bing or other search engine. Better yet, these services let utilities steer the conversation in the months leading up to a smart meter rollout and serve as a supplement to other educational and outreach efforts. What outreach? Funny you should ask…
Unfamiliarity Breeds Contempt
Mix unfamiliar technology with higher energy bills and it’s easy to see why some customers are up in arms. A recent Harris Interactive poll revealed that 63 percent of Americans have never heard of smart meters and 68 percent haven’t heard of the smart grid. Clearly, utilities have a lot of work to do.
As I’ve written about before, the solution is to get ahead of smart meter rollouts with outreach. This is an opportunity to educate consumers about smart meters and the technology behind them without sugarcoating it. After all, there’s every chance that a super-accurate smart meter may be taking the place of a faulty mechanical unit that may have under-reported consumption for decades and kept energy bills erroneously low. Getting the facts out early will help prevent unpleasant surprises later.
The Snail Mail Route
How do you reach customers offline or those that somehow slipped past your outreach efforts? By getting innovative with the one form of contact that they all have in common: the electric bill. Opower, an Arlington, Va.-based startup we’ve covered over at Earth2Tech, is helping utilities set and maintain high participation rates for their energy-efficiency programs. How? Mostly by mailing paper reports.
Similarly, utilities can use monthly bills to grab the attention of customers. Inserts may seem like an obvious solution, but they’ll likely end up in the trash. Instead, it seems the time is right to start experimenting with new billing layouts, messaging and infographics that bring important statistics and notices — the impending arrival of new smart meters certainly qualifies — “above the fold” instead of burying them in the fine print.
PG&E’s and Oncor’s problems are indicative of companies that are unprepared for the impact of smart meters would on their customer service operations. The relatively low-cost ways of connecting with consumers I listed above are a start, but utilities should be prepared to renew their focus on customer service and be prepared to invest accordingly in the years to come.

Question of the week

How can utilities who are behind the times on the customer service front get caught up?