The newest trend in utility/customer relationships is the growing number of Consumer Experience Manager (CEM) positions that are appearing in utilities. What is a consumer experience? Quite simply, the interactions that a consumer can have with a utility through any number of channels. The traditional utility channels for consumer contact are contact centers (managing calls, emails, and webchats); retail payment centers; and websites. These are extremely powerful channels for proactive Smart Grid education in addition to delivering reactive consumer services. For utilities, social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn are new channels or touchpoints that should be leveraged for similar goals. Integrating traditional and new channels offers utilities exceptional opportunities to impact consumer attitudes and behaviors about energy — and engage, educate, and enlighten consumers. For far too many utilities, the consumer experience is disjointed, incoherent, and frustrating. Hence the need for CEMs who can take a holistic, unsiloed view of the multiple channels for consumer interaction and champion actions to transform operations to deliver cohesive interactions.

Consumer Experience Managers are agents of change in utilities, and I met several at a recent conference where I spoke about internal and external communications to promote Smart Grid projects and programs.  They must sometimes feel like the religious prophets who were voices in the wilderness – except they are spreading the message about the need for utilities to transform operations to become consumer-centric.  They have a difficult job – convincing their fellow employees about the need to recalibrate operations to deliver consistent experiences for consumers.  It’s a tough sell for several reasons.  First, many utilities feel secure in the knowledge that they are monopolies, and there are employees who still think of consumers as ratepayers, or even worse, meters.  These employees may be hostile to any change.  Then, utilities are often a collection of siloed operations that may look rational and functional from the inside, but not from an outsider (consumer) view.  For other utility employees, they are quite willing to make changes to resolve problems, but within their own siloed operations, they don’t see the sum total of interactions that define the consumer experience or perceive it to be a problem.  Then the regulatory structures that most investor-owned utilities (IOUs) operate under don’t always understand how consumer experience is different than customer satisfaction but extremely important to accomplishing Smart Grid policy or technology objectives.  And finally, the static nature of the electric utility industry has allowed utilities to conduct business without constant evaluation of the most effective strategies to gain and keep consumer loyalty.

What happens if new Energy Service Providers (ESPs) intermediate the current utility ownership of the electricity consumer relationship?  We are seeing the first steps in this direction with announcements from Verizon and Comcast to do just that.  What if they offer subscriptions for home energy management services (HEMS) and create better consumer experiences than utilities offer?  

It’s too soon to tell if consumers will flock to these new offerings, some of which are still in the pilot stage.  However, their success could have these potential ramifications to utilities – reduced share valuation for investors; reduced capacity to enroll consumers in Demand Response (DR) programs that reduce or postpone investments in infrastructure; and loss of leverage with consumers who are aggregated under an ESP.  Consumer Experience Managers will be critical to utilities to ensure that their departments, resources, and communications are calibrated to support consumer-centric operations, deflect threats of intermediation, and ensure success of Smart Grid initiatives.