The message in Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid” is a great example of a focused communications strategy. Utilities and vendors of energy solutions and services that require figurative and literal buy-in of ratepayers and consumers need to create focused and layered communications strategies with them in mind. Your success depends on engaging consumers in conversations about the benefits of smart grid technologies – for consumers.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to discuss, well, no, that’s the wrong verb to describe the scenario. I had the chance to bow on bended knee to humbly suggest to a representative of my local utility that it could improve its messaging about the benefits of smart meters and Smart Grid technologies in general, and target messaging to women in particular. The response, delivered in the chilliest of tones was that since the utility had a woman at the head of the marketing effort, that demographic was more than amply covered. No, sorry, it’s not covered. Not even close.
It is employee attitudes like this that will kill Smart Grid support, which is needed at both the taxpayer and ratepayer levels. It is employee attitudes like this that have utility CEOs despairing of successfully effecting change within their own organizations*. It is attitudes like this that torpedo any possibility of a utility being the trusted advisor to help consumers manage significant changes in their relationships with energy. And the saddest realization of all is that while consumers overwhelmingly expect utilities to offer advice about energy consumption, utilities like the major IOU (Investor Owned Utility) in my area are serving up plenty of material for future business school courses about how to squander trust in utilities through a lack of interest in ratepayer communications.
There are smart utilities out there that have successfully enlightened their customers about smart meters and Smart Grid benefits, and it would be fantastic if all utilities actively shared successes and failures to facilitate the development of practical advice. The smart utilities understand that today’s ratepayer relationship may migrate to a customer relationship in the future, and that customers will have choices about energy suppliers. These same utilities also understand that sustaining and growing trust relationships will help engage consumers to be enthusiastic participants in residential demand response programs and energy efficiency programs.
So when you read the definition of the Smart Grid in the Smart Grid Dictionary, the point about bi-directional communications is more than an evolutionary change in a network, for some utilities, it’s a revolutionary change in their behaviors. You may not always like what you hear from your ratepayers, but start listening now and building rapport to deliver the complex messages about the Smart Grid and the benefits to consumers. And Smart Grid solution vendors need to remember that the Smart Grid is more than just wealth creation for them. It won’t happen without value creation for consumers.
To all the hard-working, dedicated, and insightful PG&E employees who understand the importance of enlightening consumers about Smart Grid initiatives and are working to do that, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I support your efforts, and I am sorry that you have to deal with colleagues who just don’t get the fact that Smart Grid success is contingent on ratepayer and taxpayer support. Maybe if you post “It’s the Consumer, Stupid” signs in the office, the message will sink in.
*IBM global study of utility CEOs: 70% anticipated turbulent change within their organizations about Smart Grid, and from one year to the next reported a 19% drop in their expected success in managing that change.