The power of prepay

Tools

By Jaclyn Brandt

The world of utilities is changing, and companies are beginning to cater more to their customers by offering them tools to keep their energy costs lower.

For companies like NV Energy, the benefits of prepay have almost become a necessity, as 31 percent of the utility's customers in the southern division do not have bank accounts. For many of those "unbanked" customers, prepay could be the only way to sign up for a utility, according to Kevin Judice, vice president and chief information officer of NV Energy, which boasts 500,000 subscribers to its projected bill program.

Both prepay and projected bill programs have seen the same consequences at utilities across the country -- customers use less energy when they pay for it in advance and can see the amount of energy they are using.

More than energy

Utilities have traditionally focused on energy delivery with little concern for anything else -- until now. Other providers of services, such as banks, cell phones, cable television, Internet, have understood for a while that offering comprehensive services through communication and social media breeds loyalty. Customers expect nothing less from their utility.  

Smart grid has raised the stakes when it comes to customer engagement by leveraging the power of information stored in smart meters to educate energy users whether through websites, mobile apps, social media or other digital strategies.

"They are comparing us against all the other service providers they have," David Harkness, vice president and CIO of Xcel Energy said, so the utility makes sure that customers have all the information they need. Prepay and projected bill programs are a way to stay in touch with the consumer and communicate with them about their energy use.

Regarding the customers' communications expectations, Harkness added, "Our outage map was live for two weeks before people began asking 'Why can't I get that on my phone?'"

Xcel Energy has been working on what they call their "Moments That Matter" program, focused on the moments that matter most when dealing with customers, including online and mobile experiences. The utility offers customers the opportunity to start and stop service, pay their bill, manage their energy and understand their outage, all over the web. But Harkness said each one is "a big opportunity to raise or lower expectations."

Smart grid has raised the stakes when it comes to customer engagement by leveraging the power of information stored in smart meters to educate energy users whether through websites, mobile apps, social media or other digital strategies, and Pepco understands the importance of interaction via these channels.

Other providers of services, such as banks, cell phones, cable television, Internet, have understood for a while that offering comprehensive services through communication and social media breeds loyalty. Customers expect nothing less from their utility.

"A lot of benefits are caused by actions customers choose to take. Customer engagement is a large part of that," said Doug Myers, chief information officer with Pepco Holdings, Inc. "We recognize that electricity is a low-involvement good and we have to find those opportunities when we can get our customer's attention and send a message. We have to recognize those opportunities, understanding that customers are motivated by different things at different times. "

Pepco Holdings, Inc. offers a dynamic pricing service, which gives customers a peak energy savings credit and features smart thermostats. In 2013, 600,000 customers received credits on their bills because of the programs -- equaling $4.5 million saved -- and the program continues to grow.

The importance of prepay and projected energy use services has become an important part of the utility puzzle. With the landscape changing toward the digital world, having the most current information at their fingertips is suddenly important to many customers.

Utilities are learning that staying in touch with their customers and making them feel engaged is the first step to gaining their trust and loyalty for years to come.