The phrase “putting the cart before the horse” colorfully describes how we sometimes can get our sequences jumbled, which can often lead to embarrassment or inefficiency. Horses are more efficient at pulling than pushing. Utilities are more practiced at integrating technology than communicating to customers about change. That is understandable as communicating with customers about utility technological change has not been needed until recently, particularly as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) or smart meters are concerned.
For well over a year, the industry—and in many cases the press—have been watching as various utilities, commissions, and interest groups wrestle over opt-out programs, health effects of radio frequency, and suspicions over privacy. Some utilities, such as Glendale Water and Power, have communicated well with their customers, and have realized few objections or customer refusals of the new technology. Others have had a more difficult path.
A recent industry report on customer education spending by SmartEnergy IP revealed that US utilities, irrespective of size and service area, judged they had insufficient budget to conduct AMI communications programs targeted to customers.
More interesting is that deployment teams—not marketing or public affairs departments—more often than not, are charged with the responsibility of communicating information about AMI to customers. Given that their charter of completing installation, frequently deployment teams outreach programs are focused more on scheduling installations than on conveying the customer benefits of the technology. Of course, the question is: why would experts in deploying technology be charged with communicating such a customer touch point, particularly one that can create rather significant change to the utility-customer relationship? Can anyone imagine an executive decision resulting in an outreach (communications) department that would be responsible for vetting, planning, and deploying a complicated technology upgrade?
Accepted change management approaches argue for early involvement and socialization among key stakeholders. Early involvement and socialization lead to alignment. Good customer communications, like internal communications in a change management scheme, does not eliminate resistance, but with proper attention facilitates the task of pulling the cart of technology improvement.
When, and to what degree, should utilities involve their customers in technology changes the relationship between the two? For larger pioneers in AMI, the question is moot at this point. For the many others that are now considering AMI, the question is fresh and relevant. Regardless of adoption stage, what are there other technological advances will we be integrating in the coming years? Will we be ready to engage the customer in our change process?
By: Brian Pugliese, senior principal consultant, DNV KEMA Energy & Sustainability