Effective Portal Planning

One important element of a successful energy reduction program is influencing customer behavior.  Why then, is the customer perspective often left out of the equation when designing a smart grid implementation?  Utilities must adapt to the changing role they now play with customers and the need to proactively inform and educate the community.   A well designed Demand Side Management strategy includes a continual and purposeful communication strategy to all stakeholders including staff, customers, and utility Commission/Council members to gain buy-in and participation.

One channel for providing messaging and customer participation in energy efficiency and demand response programs is a comprehensive web portal.  A web portal can help manage service costs while driving understanding and adoption of programs that help positively affect the load on your grid.

Utilities have historically had a passive relationship with their customers.  They only heard from customers when there was an issue: if the lights were on, everything was great.   Similarly, customers didn’t give much thought to their electric utility unless their bill was too high or the lights went out.  

This relationship will be altered with the introduction of smart grid technologies and the resulting new customer programs.  New demand response programs will allow customers to view relevant consumption data online, enroll in new rate tiers, sign up for new devices from the utility, and begin to receive alerts from the utility through multiple communications channels.

Additionally, customers are ready to act on and consume this information online. As customers have grown accustomed to using other services online such as credit card, cable, or cell phone service, they will demonstrate an expectation for electric utilities to deliver the same level of service.  These changes shift the online presence of the utility from simple service fulfillment to customer engagement and empowerment.  Reactive customer service won’t suffice with these changes.

The key tool for managing this relationship in the future will be the customer-focused website, or ePortal.  This portal will be the means by which customers enroll and participate in programs to shift their demand.   Furthermore, transitioning your customers from passive consumers to data-driven decision makers will require easily accessed, relevant and timely data – all in something easy to understand from a web interface.  The success of any demand response program will hinge on a customer’s comprehension of their usage data and then taking action to alter their habits.

If handled correctly, the mutual benefits to the customer and utility from the portal can be immense. A robust portal can manage service costs on the utility end, drive adoption of demand programs, and affect the overall load of the utility. A rich customer experience can also improve the customer’s perception of the utility as well, increasing satisfaction and loyalty.

The following sections discuss strategies to prepare your organization to deliver a rich online customer experience.

BUDGET FOR CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE TECHNOLOGIES IN THE SMART GRID PROJECT

For any smart grid technology deployment, there will be an intense focus on picking the right hardware. Whether it’s the Meter Data Management System (MDMS), Load Control Management System (LCMS), or Smart Meters (AMI), the utility will spend well-deserved effort on validating their future technology. 

The success of many of these implementations will also rely on customers taking action through the ePortal.  In some cases, customer adoption of the programs enabled by these technologies can make or break the business case.   

As a result the end customer interfaces, such as an ePortal, merit as much consideration and planning as the smart grid technologies themselves.  Since efficiency and conservation, cost reduction, and load shifting remain contingent upon the enrollment of your customer, the process by which this happens requires as much attention as the supporting technology.

THE PORTAL SHOULD BE CUSTOMER-CENTRIC

The ePortal can be a powerful tool, but it is not a silver bullet for all customers.  It is important to understand that not everyone will use it.  Furthermore, all customers that do enroll in the portal services will not necessarily use it in the same way. Users will have different goals: some may just want billing online while others will continually monitor their usage and find ways to save money and energy. 

As your utility plans for its new customer experience, it’s important to inform yourself and plan for the different customer interactions.  The customer portal experience should be designed with each end user groups’ goals in mind. 

Some steps you can take to do this include the following:

  • Segment your customer types: understand the customer categories that will and will not use the portal.  One common way to test customer effectiveness is to develop a persona that acts like this customer.
  • Identify what you expect them to accomplish: have clear actions in mind when you design the customer experience. Then, design the process around accomplishing those goals.  Any attempts to make it easy for the customer increase your chances of a positive customer experience.
  • Account for the entire program on-boarding process: the portal needs to support the full customer program lifecycle – from enrollment, to order fulfillment, to service.
  • Understand your customer’s expectations: again, knowing the categories of users will help you understand what they want from the online interaction.

A key outcome of the techniques listed above will be the information architecture for the portal. This lays out the design for which the customers will navigate through the site to accomplish the desired actions. During the development of the architecture, it is recommended that you interact with end users to understand how they will access the site.   Since this is a customer facing effort, it is important to have the customer help guide the design early in the process. Getting customer feedback on the initial design through pilot groups is a valuable step toward building a customer-centric portal.

PREPARE THE ORGANIZATION FOR CHANGES TO CUSTOMER SERVICE

A common pitfall with customer portals involves the alignment of the organization to meet the customers’ needs. It’s important to remember that a portal is not a utility solution or an IT solution – it’s a customer solution. 

Your customers will have new questions, on top of the existing requests.  Customers will continue to call about moves/adds/changes and billing questions. But with the implementation of smart grid, customers will have questions on the new rates, programs, and the tools available to them.

Another overlooked aspect is technical support questions on the portal itself. The customer may have questions on how to navigate to site to accomplish something, or have questions about resetting their password, or browser-based issues.

Answering these new questions will require a coordinated effort from all utility operations.  To best address this, during the portal strategy it should be what role the portal plays internally at the utility. A few considerations include the following:

  • Ownership of the infrastructure and administration of the technology: the portal may be an IT tool with utility data. Both departments will need to be on the same page to deliver the right service. If the portal will sit separate from an existing IT department, the utility needs to understand that support of a web portal is a full time job.
  • Define where the portal fits within other existing web applications:  depending on your utility structure, the portal may be part of an existing website framework. If that’s the case, it should be determined who will be responsible for maintenance of the site content and inbound service requests.
  • Who will govern the content of the portal: again, this requires coordination between communications teams and utility teams. Existing staff may need to be trained on these programs to communicate to the end customers. Additionally, this involves who within the utility will provide customer support.  Your support team should be prepared to talk to the intricacies of both the smart grid programs and supporting technologies.

MANAGING THE CUSTOMER THROUGH SELF SERVICE

A key goal driven by the strategies above is to have a tool that enables self service. A powerful portal addresses the needs of the customer without the assistance of utility personnel. 

If the customer can perform the action on their own, it drives down support costs.  Educating your customers is only a part of the solution.  Your portal should provide a way for customers to enroll in the programs offered by your utility as well as be a pivotal piece to drive that enrollment.  Customers need to be informed not only of the programs available to them, but also have an interface where they can learn about them.   A well designed portal will achieve both goals.

CONCLUSION

By planning early for the portal, designing to the customers’ needs, and aligning your utility to support the online customer experience, you increase the chances for success.

Your web portal will be a reflection of your utility that can shape customer sentiment. By designing a portal solution around the needs and goals of your customers, you take a step toward gaining adoption of your demand programs.

Dave Tilson is a Director with the Customer Solutions team at West Monroe Partners. His passion for constant improvement in processes and behaviors drives his vision for building and maintaining optimal customer relationships as well as sales, marketing and customer service methodologies.

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