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As of this past January, Google had some 500 million people using its virtual assistant, Google Assistant, every month. Last January, Amazon was boasting that it had sold 100 million devices that let people have their virtual assistant, Alexa, turn off lights, turn on tunes or tell them what the weather would be like the next day.


Are virtual assistants the future of consumer engagement? Listen to the podcast.


Here is the challenge inherent in these statistics: Consumers like having information at their fingertips that is easy to use and designed to improve their lives. If utilities want to engage customers as effectively as Amazon engages them with Alexa, the folks who deliver gas, water and electricity need to be seen as trusted advisors who can help people run their households comfortably and save money at the same time.


Engaging Consumers is a Challenge

Most of the time, utilities face the problem of being invisible unless customers owe the utility money or there’s problem. That is, consumers do not usually engage with their utilities more than once a month, when the consumer is writing a check or paying a bill online. For those who have utility payments on autopay, the utility is completely off the consumer’s radar. And, autopay customers account for nearly one customer in five according to a 2018 survey by eSource. At some utilities, autopay accounts made up 25% of the customer base.

When consumers do engage with utilities, it is usually over a negative event, such as the frustration of a power outage or a water bill that is much higher than the customer expected.

When the customer gets that high bill, there is a good chance he or she will have a hard time figuring out what caused it. After all, the bill hits the consumers mailbox or email as much as 30 days after the consumption occurred.

Here is another thing that happens long after consumption takes place: A lot of power providers try to nudge consumers to save energy using neighbor-comparison software. Yes, these peer comparisons do result in energy savings. When researchers at the National Bureau for Economic Research looked at two utilities using such reports, they found average energy use dropped by 1.2% to 2.1%. Researchers at eSource have had similar findings, putting the savings at 1% to 2.5%.

Still, some customers often dislike those peer comparisons. One Chicago Tribune reporter said such reports left her feeling “energy shamed.” A Detroit Free Press headline read: “Usage reports irk utility customers.”

Given these conditions, there is often not much for consumers to like about their gas, water, or electricity providers. People expect utilities to keep the gas, water and electrons flowing, so they will not get any kudos for doing that. It is time to do more.


Customer Relationships are Changing

Happily, gas, water and electric utilities have the power to change that utility-customer relationship.
Take smart lighting, for instance. With it, consumers can control their lights from a smartphone or tablet app that lets them turn lights on and off or change the brightness. They also can lower the lumens, so a power company could offer savings on smart lights and then contact the customers who use them with reminders to set times or lower lumens and save. The same can be said for smart dimmer switches.

Utilities also could offer an energy efficiency rebate or some other promo, then remind customers that they can save money when they use the dimmer.

A LampsPlus web page offers this sample message a utility could also send: “If you dim your lights 50%, you can cut the energy they use by 40%. The bulbs may last as much as 20% longer, too!”

Plus, electric, water, and gas utilities with advanced metering infrastructure solutions (AMI) collect tons of data from meters that can be used to inform customers, giving them plenty of people-helping power. The AMI data collected provide insights that utilities otherwise would not have:

  • A water utility with AMI can give customers the chance to sign up for alerts that will let them know when there might be a leak on the premises or when the customer is likely to exceed a pre-set billing amount.
  • A gas utility can also send those high-bill-ahead notifications and make suggestions, such as offering customers information on how to lower gas usage. “Lower the temperature on your water heater,” or “Make sure your furnace filters are clean to improve furnace efficiency.”
  • An electricity or gas provider could do high-bill alert, too. Perhaps an electric provider would send a text saying, “Your bill is trending high. You might want to turn your thermostat up to save on air conditioning costs.”


Making Specific Recommendations

Electric utilities with AMI in place also can offer their customers device-specific diagnostics and energy-saving recommendations through load disaggregation. Load disaggregation software uses algorithms to separate the whole energy profile of a customer’s premises into appliance-specific data.

Load disaggregation lets consumers see how various appliances impact the energy bill, which is enough to get many to run an air conditioner a little less or hang some clothes outside instead of letting them tumble dry.

Some studies indicate information from load disaggregation can prompt consumers to shave as much as 15% of the consumption on certain appliances.

Ahead, disaggregation may become a predictive maintenance tool. So, instead of receiving a monthly report indicating the 68% more power used than more efficient neighbors, the customer would get a text message indicating a possible reason more energy was used. For instance, that a faulty compressor in the household refrigerator may be adding unnecessary cost to the power bill.

Receiving disaggregation-enabled tips on how to save power and money may be especially valuable for consumers who use automated payments and rarely look at the bills they get in their email boxes.
According to research from Duke University, the adage out of sight, out of mind applies to electricity use.

“A study of 16 years of billing records from one South Carolina utility found that residential customers using automatic bill payments consumed 4 to 6 percent more power than those who did not. Commercial electricity customers used 8 percent more. And low-income residents who enrolled in budget billing to spread the cost of seasonal peak demand across the year used 7 percent more electricity,” an online write-up of the research noted.

By using AMI to offer helpful, actionable tips, utilities can give these consumers who are not really watching their consumption quick and easy ways to reduce their household expenses and help the environment, too.

This kind of information is personal, actionable and easy to do through Aclara ACE®, our adaptive consumer engagement platform. It gives utilities a way to offer consumers targeted, specific actions to take to use gas, water, and electricity more efficiently.

Someday, too, maybe utilities will team up with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. When all those smart lightbulbs and switches team up with the virtual assistants, consumers will be able to say, “Alexa, save me $10 on my electric bill, and don’t do it by touching my air conditioner when I’m home.” Then, the data from AMI and an analytics engine can help Alexa understand how and when the consumer uses energy and find ways to reduce consumption to lower the bill.

Listen to our podcast from the 2019 CS Week Executive Perspectives Podcast series to learn how gas, water, and power providers utilities will soon offer services as easy to use and helpful as a virtual assistant.

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