Chartwell Inc. hosted its 2011 Summit on Mobile and Web Customer Interaction in Phoenix. There I was treated to case studies from many utilities in North America on their mobile and web initiatives. Overall, I’m very impressed with the progress we’ve made as an industry. It was clear that several recurring themes emerged:
- Customers Drive Mobile Development
- Outage Reporting is Critical for Mobile
- Customers Favor Text Alerts and Text to Pay
- Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Sites is Something Utilities are Grappling With
- Social Media is Key to Building Communities and Driving Mobile Adoption
- The Sky is the Limit with Smart Grid
Customers Drive and Demand Mobile Development
The prevailing theme among all the utilities, and aptly summed up by Fred Leich of ConEd is “Make it easy for customers to do business with us.” Customers are continually more demanding, are becoming more sophisticated technologically, and are clamoring to do business with their mobile devices. Adding the mobile channel means one more method of communicating with them, and faster, more convenient interactions – which drives up customer satisfaction.
“Listen to your customers” was another mantra. Study the webtrends stats, interview them. Understand why they’re coming to your site, what they’re trying to do on your mobile site, and what kinds of devices they use. Focus on the most common transactions customers want to perform that also have the most benefit to the company (Log in to My Account, report problem, check service status, emergency info). I was happy to see so many utilities offering My Account services through the mobile experience.
Green Mountain Energy’s Jeff Hutchinson’s compellingly entitled presentation “One Developer, One Week. How to Build a Mobile App with Limited Resources,” focused on asking the right questions in terms of how much time will it take, how much money will it cost, can the infrastructure support it, is it work the risk, will it meet customers’ high expectations? They contracted with an online mobile app builder called Appmakr and were not disappointed. They created a “mini” app, with contact customer service contacts. Their future plans are more robust, and include bill pay.
Jeff Roy, of NOVEC, posed the question is a mobile site necessary? Customer satisfaction survey results say YES. The mobile channel is keeping customers informed and offers an additional point of contact with customers. Their JD Power web customer service score increased from 590 in 2008 to 696 in 2009 to 730 in 2010. Their challenges include cost, corporate buy-in, fragmented platforms, keeping up with better mobile browsers, increased prevalence of apps.
Stu Goldfarb from XCEL Energy reported that their primary objective was to improve customer satisfaction. Their keys to success were creating the infrastructure first, having complete alignment between the business side and IT, having strong executive sponsorship, and a flexible execution team. Their JD Power ratings have gone from 3rd quartile to 1st.
Many utilities (including AEP) made their foray into mobile by offering outage reporting. A common complaint among utilities (one we heard all the time before launching our mobile site) is “My power is out and you expect me to report my outage online, but my computer doesn’t work.”
ConEd’s baseline online outage reporting grew from 3-4% to 7-8%, and 14-15% during storms. In fact, ConEd saw 30% of traffic through the mobile channel during one day of ice storm.
NOVEC’s mobile site is modeled their site after SCE&G – where the main focus is outage reporting – and is optimized for BlackBerry and iPhone. In many ways, their initial mobile efforts mirror our own, although theirs offers links to NOVEC social media and a link to log in to customer accounts and pay bills.
According to Tim Melton, LG&E / KU was hammered during Hurricane Ike and again during the 2009 ice storm. At that point, the commission recommended that they communicate with their customers via text, mobile, social media channels. They are offering 2-way text messaging for outage reporting and status, with an online notification manager to set message preferences and do not disturb times. A poignant quote from Tim was that “County-level outages aren’t enough. People want personal outage status.” We then heard from Chad Swenka of iFactor Consulting on their outage mapping solution.
Text Alerts and Text to Pay
Several utilities are already using text to pay. The primary benefits include: all phone types are supported, all major carriers are supported, it offers an easy to implement self-service enrollment, it’s flexible to customer, it’s scalable (accommodating messages, alerts, reminders).
Nikki Lappin from NorthWestern Energy spoke about their pay by text option that launched in summer 2010. Customers can make payments via ACH, credit card, or pinless ATM card. Interestingly, she was able to create this project herself, with $0 capital spent (they do have a contract with a vendor, so the cost of integration is built in). All payment types available in their IVR and internet are available through pay by text. So far, they have nearly 800 customers enrolled. The fee to pay by credit cards is steep, at $5.50, but if customers choose ACH, it is free. NWE pays 25 cents per transaction, which is also built into the contract.
Portland General has seen a great response to its billing alerts, with 30,000 customers enrolled. Their mobile site, which launched in 2010 has grown from 2-4% to 6-8% average traffic. One of the astounding facts of the conference came from Kim Metcalf: of the customers who pay their bills via mobile text message, the average time of payment from alert sent to payment received is 2-1/2 minutes! I’m working on getting more details from Kim, but if they’re getting 30,000 payments a month that way, it’s a very compelling case. Speaking of cases, Kim did mention that they’re working on building a case to present to the public utilities commission of Oregon to allow for rate recovery of for absorbing the cost of credit card transactions. Their text-to-pay service is reducing late payments and it’s showing savings to the company and the customer, and they hope to gain some traction with the PUC.
At APS, Earlene Burris mentioned that 33% of their customers pay within 4 hours of getting a disconnect notice, and that text to pay has a huge demand in terms of preventing shut off.
Giff Gifroerer, the leading expert on text messaging and mobile stats posed the rhetorical question when asked about the possible success of one-way text messaging: “Isn’t the point of text messaging to be two-way?” I do completely agree, and it’s unfortunate that the powers that be at AEP determined that 2-way text messaging was too pricey to implement for our outage reporting pilot. Also, with email attrition at nearly 2.5% per month (or 30% per year) – yet with people generally holding onto their cell phone numbers wherever they go – text messaging makes perfect sense in terms of reaching your customers.
Other tidbits from the panel include working with the wireless carriers so that customers don’t absorb the cost of sending and receiving messages; understanding that pay by text is very secure (provided you don’t include full account numbers or addresses); and that the best text to pay experiences let customers pay their bills in 15 seconds. Everyone agreed that 160 characters is very short, and it’s most effective to use words like “avoid termination” or “prevent shut-off” to compel people to pay.
SRP wasn’t part of the panel, but in Chris Rohrer’s presentation, he cited SRP’s future plans, which include mobile bill pay via SMS text message, where customers can enroll through My Account on the full web. It will leverage the existing web and IVR electronic check system – so it will be free to SRP customers.
Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Sites
Some companies present have both a mobile site and a mobile app (or are planning a mobile app).
ConEd decided to make their site primarily focused on My Account and outage reporting, whereas their mobile app is specific to green energy. Their app attempts to build community. Unlike their mobile site, which is platform independent, their mobile app is for iPhone only. Why? They’ve studied their traffic and found that 33% comes from iPhone. A significant percentage also comes from Android, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they go after that platform next. BlackBerry makes up a small percentage, and is probably not on their roadmap.
SRP is currently designing their mobile app, which will primarily be for My Account. Initial content will be web based and will include account balance, billing and payment, and usage.
XCEL Energy’s objective in building a mobile app is to create a dialog with customers. It is the primary driver for outage updates, contact information, social media, program promotions and rebates, and the IVR directory. They plan to offer outage reporting with photo and GPS, call center integration, and bill pay and pay stations. Eventually, they will also offer program promotion, rebate automation (following in-store purchase, they get a PDF of a rebate form), and an education center. Stu discussed creating a roadmap, then building out the underlying architecture. The app simply pulls in web content into the app framework. They use a content management system – where the mobile-tagged pages are hidden to users – to update the mobile site (and app) without customers having to re-update in the App Store.
Scott Burns, of Reliant Energy, showed us how they use its mobile app as part of their e-Sense Smart Energy Solutions, for remote control of home automation settings.
Many utilities are tying mobile into social, or using social to drive a sense of community, which ties into mobile.
ConEd, whom Chartwell dubbed the pioneers of mobile in the utility space, talked about their Power of Green app, which provides energy saving tips, videos, checklists, and more leveraged their existing Power of Green Facebook page to grow the community. They offered the app first to anyone who was a fan of their page. Today, the app has been downloaded more than 7000 times.
The LG&E / KU Twitter page keeps customers informed during outages.
XCEL Energy’s Stu Goldfarb discussed their five social media venues: Birdcam, Twitter, Facebook, XCEL Energy Blog, and YouTube. Interestingly, the Birdcam enjoys a 10:1 traffic advantage over My Account, and Stu called it “the hidden gem of our site.” Their plans are to leverage its popularity to drive more customers to online self service.
Reliant Energy sees social media as essential to attracting and retaining customers in the competitive retail environment of Texas. When people receive recommendations from friends and peers through social media, the adoption rate is much higher. For energy savings, they argue, consumers need a personal frame of reference (friends and family) for their energy consumption habits to know if they are being effective and how they compare. Online communities are key to the success of smart energy. Scott shared their community site, energyinyourlife.com, and provided guidance on how to use social media sites: don’t just post…engage; provide relevant content; run relevant contests; thank your customers. Probably the most fun part was watching their social media videos, which went viral. Because only about 25% of customers understand what the smart grid is for, these videos drive awareness of smart energy in a very humorous and off-brand manner. Check out their Ask Jack and Mega Watt videos.
Smart Grid Means “The Sky is The Limit” for Web and Mobile
Although the summit on Smart Grid communications was going on next door to our mobile summit, it’s impossible to talk web and mobile and not include smart grid applications. We heard from XCEL Energy, Salt River Project, and Reliant Energy on their use of the web and mobile platform to deliver smart-meter alerts.
XCEL is piloting Home Energy Management, where customers have a Home Area Network (HAN) with thermostat, display, two plug devices. They can perform demand response events, monitor energy consumption and behavior. Their advanced billing pilot alerts customers of peak energy pricing events, and peak energy events. Their Home Energy Management Portal looks clean and easy to use. In conjunction, there is a HEM Mobile App, which features a sleek design and the ability to remotely control your appliances, see your current and target temperature, and program the thermostat modes.
SRP has built a My Account Smart Meter portal. They’re averaging 230,000 customer logins per month into My Account – or around 80% of their total web traffic. The Smart Meter content is the second most popular page at 70,000 visits per month. They offer an innovative bill estimate, which is available after seven days of usage during the current billing cycle. The combination of past usage and billing engine data means their estimates are consistently within $5 of actual, and usually within $1. SRP has a robust notification system, where customers can sign up to receive bill notifications, e-Bills, payment confirmations, courtesy reminders, weather updates, pool timer reminders, environmental news, and e-Weather. On the smart meter side, customers can sign up for a weekly notification of the estimated amount of their bill, a notification when their estimated bill is above a customer-defined threshold, and a notification when the previous day’s usage exceeds a customer-defined threshold. They have over 1 million total enrollments in their notifications, with 180,000 enrolled in bill notification, 42,000 in bill estimates. They send nearly 6.5 million email notifications in 2010. So far in 2011, they average 16,500 per day. They also offer text message notifications for their smart meter content, with 4200 total enrollments. They sent almost 38,000 text messages last year, and around 110 per day in 2011.
I could have listened to Scott Burns’s presentation from Reliant Energy all day. He crammed so much into 45 minutes (in a good way) that I’m left totally impressed with what they’ve done so far and their mobile roadmap for the future. He’s the one that said “Sky’s the limit with smart grid.” They’ve already built a full suite of complementary web and mobile products offering customer insights into their energy usage. They send a weekly summary email that provides an at-a-glance overview of electricity usage each week, comparisons to previous weeks, estimated bill for the month, and energy saving tips. Their online portal offers an in-depth view of historical usage data, email and SMS alert management, peer comparison, and remote access. Their Home Energy Monitor (HEM) shows real-time current electricity usage and pricing, alerts, bill-to-date, and an estimated bill. They have a usability staff that has performed card sorting and usability testing of most, if not all, of their offerings. And it sounds like they’re envisioning any of these things to be done on a mobile phone as well. As mentioned above, they’re already using a mobile app as part of their e-Sense Smart Energy Solutions, for remote control of home automation settings.
Other Noteworthy Presentations
We heard from Yuki Sakai at EPCOR on their Commercial Web Self Service. Amazingly (to me, at least) is that they’ve built an online start service for business customers. While it’s something we’ve pondered here, the complexity combined with relatively small numbers of commercial customers starting service compared to residential, made it a non-compelling business case for us. At EPCOR, however, they’ve had some great results. They’ve gone from 1% commercial web adoption in 2009 to 8.4% in Jan 2010, to 30.1% in December 2010. The benefits of automation include a 38.5% reduction in commercial applications received via fax, a 37.7% reduction in email requests from commercial customers, and a 12.4% reduction in homebuilder applications received by fax.
In an effort to maintain registration growth on APS.com, Donald Case talked about turning to its customer care center associates who interact daily with customers that haven’t yet enrolled in online self service. They essentially created a prolonged “dating relationship” with the call center that eventually resulted in a successful courtship and engagement. They integrated APS.com with their customer service tool (CCE) and saw an increase in registrations of 362%. To further court the associates, they created contests, where customer service associates get points for signing up customers for various services. The “Football Frenzy,” a similar program where associates could earn virtual yards in a football game yielded prizes of a High Def TV, an Xbox, and a grill.
Chartwell created an intimate and interactive summit for utility web and mobile communicators. The utilities presenting – from co-op to multi-state IOU – provided excellent breadth, yet shed light on the common themes I’ve discussed. The conference schedule was a great balance of speaker presentations, well-timed breaks, and networking lunches and dinners. It would have been really nice to have nearby power outlets and free wireless for those of us who like to live Tweet and use our laptops or Evernote for notetaking. And the 7-minute speed networking sessions weren’t quite long enough to make them good two-sided dialogs.
The thing I love about the utility space, is that, for the most part, we do not compete against each other. Everyone’s willingness to share stats, insights, and sneak previews is very valuable. Certainly, my wheels are spinning fast. Those of you who are now my new professional contacts may be hearing from me with follow-up questions. And, of course, my virtual door is open to all of you as well.