Better customer engagement: Lessons from National Grid's Worcester pilot
By Jesse Berst
We are often beset by negative consumer stories - meter fires, consumer backlash, health scares, etc. So it's a pleasure to meet up with a utility that has its customers on its side. Or, to be more accurate, that has teamed with the community to create a consensus vision for the future.
I'm talking here about National Grid and its 15,000-customer pilot in the city of Worcester, MA. I believe it is one of the first times a major energy program has been co-created with customers and the community.
I recently spent time with National Grid executives Ed White, VP of Customer and Business Strategy, and Cheri Warren, VP of Asset Management. They told me the pilot will affect 11 feeders, 5 substations and roughly 15,000 customers. National Grid has made sure that the pilot will "touch all customer classes" says White. It will test smart meters, fault detection, dynamic rates, volt/VAR optimization, EV charging, energy storage, renewables and more.
They call their approach "listen, test and learn." Here are some of the learnings I gleaned during our conversation.
Consider a demo center or showcase to make the future tangible. The Sustainability Hub will be an interactive location where customers can learn more about the pilot, the technology and the energy choices they will have. National Grid is teaming up with local colleges and universities to staff the Sustainability Hub and to create cooperative learning opportunities for customers and students.
National Grid wisely tapped into the native enthusiasm of college students, progressive businesses, the local IEEE chapter and other resources. For instance, it partnered with a local university for the Hub, which it hopes can re-create the vibe of an Apple Store. It won't be for buying, but rather to learn, to demonstrate and to troubleshoot. It will be staffed by National Grid employees along with university students. In fact, students are even involved in the construction, which National Grid hopes will be finished within nine months.
Use technology to stay in touch. National Grid is also testing an in-home display that is integrated with a digital picture frame. That's likely to make the device more desirable to consumers, who often resist having another gadget cluttering their counters. What's more, it can be used to deliver tips, alerts and other messages. National Grid is also using Facebook and Twitter to continue the dialogue on the pilot, and to deliver energy savings tips, products and special offers.
"Our industry has not worked on its brand," says Warren. "But if you don't get the average customer engaged in the energy revolution you will never get the approval to spend the money necessary to fully modernize." For that reason, National Grid was careful to bring in new people with communications and marketing backgrounds to help them work with the community.
Are there other utilities that have gotten good at customer engagement? That are bringing customers along as full partners? Use the Comment form below to suggest other good examples.
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Jesse Berst is the founder and chief analyst of Smart Grid News.com, the industry's oldest and largest smart grid site. A frequent keynoter at industry events in the U.S. and abroad, he also serves on advisory committees for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Institute for Electric Efficiency. He often provides strategic consulting to large corporations and venture-backed startups. He is a member of the advisory boards of GridGlo and Calico Energy Services.