The Importance of the Customer Experience in Delivering Load Flexibility

By Rachel Henderson on

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Utilities are using load flexibility tools such as demand response (DR) programs and time-of-use (TOU) rates as methods to engage customers, reduce peak consumption on the grid, improve reliability during extreme weather, and accelerate decarbonization. While the technology to enable greater load flexibility is essential, many utilities often overlook an equally important element of DR and TOU rates success: the customers who enroll and ultimately participate in these programs. 

A superior customer experience is fundamental to successful load flexibility programs–from an enrollment, ongoing communication, and comfort perspective. 

Without investments that focus on the customer, utility DR programs run the risk of low participation and poor retention. For utilities, this can mean not only bad PR and low customer satisfaction, but also a decrease in accessible behind-the-meter devices available for their load managemwent needs, especially since customers are difficult to recruit back into a program once they’ve left it. 

To create a best-in-class customer experience, utilities can do four key things: 

  • Create a seamless customer enrollment experience
  • Proactively communicate with customers
  • Incorporate personalization
  • Enable customer choice 

Create a seamless recruitment and enrollment experience

Recruitment and enrollment experiences are some of the first ways in which a customer interacts with a load management program or TOU rate plan; making these experiences as easy as possible creates a favorable first impression that lays the groundwork for high customer satisfaction overall.

For example, bundling can make it easier for customers to enroll and access new programs during their device purchase itself, integrating rebates right into the purchase flow. This seamless customer experience makes it easier for customers to enroll in DR or TOU programs and reduces the cost of the device by stacking both the energy efficiency and demand response enrollment incentives at the point of purchase. The customer then receives a pre-enrolled device at their door that, once installed, is registered and ready to participate in a DR program. Through this bundled approach, Uplight has seen utilities scale their residential demand response programs 2-4X compared to only leveraging marketing channels to recruit customers  who have an existing device.   

Utilities are also leveraging Uplight’s Offer Center to bundle free product distribution – such as smart thermostats – with rate or device enrollments. These completely free products, coupled with enrollment, are a great way to scale participation in demand response or TOU-optimization programs through a high-satisfaction method such as giveaways. Targeting eligible populations, such as income-qualified customers, with this approach can also ensure benefits are available to them. 

Communicate effectively and proactively with customers 

Many customers have been on a flat rate and are not accustomed to paying attention to their energy use overall, much less during specific times of the day. As a result, customers may not fully understand a new rate plan or load management program or how to best utilize it. Proactive customer communication to boost understanding at, during, and after enrollment is key to preventing customer dissatisfaction or confusion, as well as improving overall comfort and engagement with these offerings.

In particular, customers can forget they are enrolled in load flexibility programs at all, especially since DR events happen seasonally. Creating a great customer experience means educating customers year-round about what to expect during their participation in a TOU or DR program, including if there are certain types of events (like emergency events) that have a significant impact on their communities. 

Utilizing messaging around shared responsibility and impact can even encourage more and longer participation, as California recently experienced when customers in demand response programs shifted 1.2 Gigawatts of load during the grid emergency on September 6. One Uplight DR program participant noted, “I felt I was doing my part to conserve energy during peak times.” 

Personalization in communication elevates the customer experience 

Embracing differences in customer preferences should be a top priority to ensure a positive experience in load management programs, and this manifests at every stage of the customer journey. 

In particular, utilities can use propensities, usage, sociodemographic, and other insights to target customers with the most compelling and relevant messages that encourage them to enroll in the offerings that best fit their unique profile. This sophisticated approach to customer acquisition ensures that customers are matched with the utility program(s) or rate that is most beneficial to their circumstances –creating opportunities to shift more load while keeping customers happy. Plus, marketing dollars are more efficiently spent on communications that will yield program acquisitions that actually generate desired outcomes.

Presenting relevant, individualized insights along with these recommendations can also increase context for recommended actions or other offers, improving the impact of these messages. 

Customer choice is imperative to an optimal customer experience, too. 

A customer-centric approach goes far beyond delightful recruitment, enrollment, and ongoing communication experiences. It also includes offering optionality in the types of devices that are managed, the ability to set preferences around comfort or device preferences during the events, and customer control regarding the frequency and duration of participation. Allowing customers to choose how they participate – as well as informing customers about their impact to the grid and community – ultimately provides a better customer experience and more positive outcomes for utilities looking to maximize decarbonization, load flexibility, and customer satisfaction. 

While it’s tempting to maximize load shift without considering customer priorities, doing so risks demand response programs’ long-term viability. For example, taking a customer too far out of their temperature comfort zone or making it cumbersome to opt out will drive increased un-enrollments, and threaten the reputation of demand response programs. 

Fortunately, customization in treatment within the program can actually yield higher satisfaction and retention, as well as load shift. For those customers more sensitive to hot and cold within their home, it is impactful to provide more personalized device management such as individualized thermostat schedules. Implementing this type of strategy not only improves a customer’s comfort, but also maximizes load shift within that customer’s home as well as in aggregate across all program participants. For example, one Uplight-managed utility program designed to shift a customer’s usage outside of peak hours on a daily basis saw a nearly 200% increase in the TOU peak period load reduction after incorporating the customer’s temperature sensitivity into our smart thermostat optimization algorithms. 

A delightful customer experience supports achievement of utility targets

For utilities looking to increase load flexibility, improving the customer experience through enabling more streamlined enrollments, communications, segmentation, and customer choice is the best way to reach this goal. Utilities need participation from devices behind the meter to meet their decarbonization and reliability goals, so it is imperative that they build strong relationships with the customers who own these devices. The good news is that investing in the customer experience not only drives increased load flexibility, but also outcomes like energy efficiency, decarbonization, and reduced cost to serve. Customers can be incredible contributors to a reliable and clean grid when empowered to do so.

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