A few months ago, I attended a community meeting about alternative energy options open to us as individual homeowners and energy consumers. I live in rural southeastern British Columbia, and we're pretty much dead last on our electric utility's list for smart metering.
And though the discussion was supposed to be about alternative energy, it quickly veered off track into questions about smart meters. Unfortunately, no electric utility representative had been invited to the meeting, so I felt duty-bound to step into the fray, particularly when the questions and “I've heard that” comments began to center around health concerns with smart meters.
As I wrote soon after in Intelligent Utility Insights, “Utilities, take note: my community, though small, is as valid a sample of consumer voices as one that might be found in a city. And, by and large, they just didn't 'get it' when we started discussing smart meters ... What I heard in discussion that afternoon is a primer for utilities in what should be 'Chapter 1: Where to Begin?' in your Smart Grid 101 efforts with your consumers.”
Popular media and naysayers' negative messages need to be abated
My neighbors are well-educated and resourceful, and have a strong, collective community voice, even if their numbers are few. A good cross-section of them showed up at this meeting, the first annual general meeting of a new community projects group. But what they know about smart meters, by and large, comes directly from popular media reports and naysayers.
As I wrote then, one person at the meeting, when told our own utility isn't yet deploying smart meters, asked if we could purchase and install them ourselves. For do-it-yourselfers, this is a logical, early-adopter type of question, and rural folks are some of the best do-it-yourselfers there are.
But underlying the keen, let's-get-'er-done attitude is a lack of understanding about utility operations, who owns the meter and more. And this neighbor is neither generally uninformed or alone – it is a common assumption in many areas of the U.S. and Canada, as smart meters are being introduced, that the meters on our houses are owned by the occupants, rather than by the utility, and that we can accept, reject or even replace them at will.
Is there a silver communications bullet for utilities?
Ever since, the question of when – or at what point in its smart metering project – a utility should begin discussing smart meters with its consumers has been haunting me. I reached out, via one of my favorite LinkedIn discussion groups, the Smart Grid Consumer Experience Group, for others' thoughts. Is there an optimum time that will help the chances of a successful deployment? And if so, how should a utility go about it? Is there a silver bullet?
Two well respected industry consultants took up the challenge.
One told me: “Personally, I would start three to five years before I started a deployment; more, if I knew I was going to do it.”
He suggested starting the conversation with community groups about what they like, as well as what they don't, about the current utility electric service, and what they feel is important for the future in the service, and what is worrying them.
“In short,” he said, “I would start the communication by listening. Too often we 'know' what our customer is thinking and whaqt they need.
“Too seldom do we really take a step back and listen.”
What are the key consumer drivers?
Truly learning what the key consumer drivers are is imperative, he noted. “Too often we think that using TV-style broadcast messaging will work, when in fact personalized messaging is critical to getting the point across and gaining acceptance.”
But personalized messaging, correctly done, isn't easy. “You need to know your customers and what kind of people they are,” he told me. “We all get miffed when someone assumes we are the typical 'Jiff Peanut Butter' customer or the typical 'Coke' customer. Few marketing or advertising campaigns stand out any more. Few messages are really read and absorbed.”
His advice? “Taking the time to listen, think, listen some more, trial some messaging, listen and adjust is really needed for effective communication.”
In reality, he said, we need to listen to and communicate with our customers all the time. It seems to me that many of us are guilty of not effectively doing just that.
The other consultant disagreed with the three- to five-year time period, but agreed with the first's assessment of the importance of communicating all the time.
He added: “I heard a statement the other day that is summarized as, 'We're deploying these meters for the good of the public and they should take them.' That's exactly the attitude that creates the backlash and opt-out requests. Sounds a lot like, 'We're from the IRS and we're here to help you.'”
Addressing the 'why' as well as impact and value
Communication to customers, he said, “needs to be about WHY this is being done and what the impact and value is to the customer. Not only the social value to all, but the personal value to the individual.”
This value proposition is imperative, as I've noted in other forums. Clear, defined messages that answer the pain-point question – What's it going to cost me, and what am I going to gain? -- are the best way forward at this point, in my opinion. Esoteric promises and a lot of smart grid hype in the general news have turned into a hindrance, rather than a help, to the industry.
The second consultant also told me that the most successful implementations of smart metering have been a combination of well-thought-through processes and execution as well as frequent communication to the consumer. “However,” he said, “I want to stress that communication to the customer happens at every customer touch point. In Ontario, one utility spent a significant amount of time educating their internal people and making sure that they fully understood the technology, the benefits and the impacts.”
Every customer interaction, from meter install to customer service representative to troubleman, will have a positive or negative impact, he said.
My take? Had we started out having these conversations a long time ago, in a truly public manner, we wouldn't be playing catch-up with consumers now.
There are numerous utility examples of smart meter rollouts done right. I look forward to continuing to share them here.