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Lessons Learned

In addition to the quantitative analysis that will provide insights and results from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Consumer Behavior Studies initiative, DOE is collecting more qualitative information, as well, from these projects on an ongoing basis through a variety of different channels to summarize the lessons that have been learned in the areas of customer engagement, operations, etc. and to share these lessons with the broader community of interested stakeholders. This list will be updated as more experience and knowledge are gained.

Browse all of the lessons here or use the menu below to jump to a specific lesson learned.

Customer Engagement

Multi-Day Critical Peak Events

Customer Engagement

Use Focus Groups

Focus groups, surveys and other tools are vital components for test marketing terms and concepts that will attract customer interest and engage them to participate in the rate being offered. For budget planning purposes, this should be considered as part of program implementation.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
The marketing material for time-based rate programs that included words like "critical", "emergency", "events" would confer the necessary message about what the rate was trying to accomplish and the high value of a customer's participation. Several utilities performed focus groups, surveys and other forms of test marketing of their recruitment material which indicated the terms and concepts utilities thought would connote positive concepts with customers actually had the opposite effect. Terms like "response," "auto," and "event" were construed as reactionary words that deflated personal control (e.g., emergencies are out of their control). Instead, some participants in focus groups appeared to like terms that construed a sense of personal control over one's own energy usage and resulting bill (e.g., "control", "choice", "sense").

Test Your Messages

Validate the messaging that comes out of focus groups with other test marketing efforts across a variety of customer segments and circumstances to develop the most effective messaging for your new time-based rate recruitment campaign.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Customers in focus groups appeared to be primarily motivated by environmental messaging when it came to recruitment into new time-based rates. Test marketing along with observed recruitment data from various messages (e.g.: saving money, environmental stewardship, taking control, fun) revealed the primary motivator for the majority of customers is financial.

Communication Skills are Important

Customers have limited opportunity to interact with their utility. Make sure all employees who will play that role are informed, committed, and enabled to making that experience a positive one for the customer. One way to do this is by focusing on communications skills as much as technical skills when hiring or recruiting people to fill these positions.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
The individuals responsible for installing pieces of technology at a customer site would have little to no effect on that customer's decision to stay with the time-based rate or incentive-based program they had chosen. Installation of technology by individuals, either internal or external to the utility, who didn't have sufficient appreciation for the importance of the public relations role they played and/or were insensitive to the ramifications of not playing that role well resulted in negative ramifications for customer engagement efforts at several utilities.

Plan for Time to Adjust Messaging

In addition to substantial internal planning and test marketing, make sure sufficient time and resources are allocated between soft launch and hard launch of the recruitment effort to adjust the messaging and other details accordingly based on feedback.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
A two week soft launch window would be sufficient to identify any problems that internal planning and test marketing of recruitment material didn't catch. Even with a two week soft launch period, one utility still didn't have enough time to incorporate necessary feedback into that material in time for the hard launch, at which point changes were very difficult and costly to make.

Set Realistic Recruitment Expectations

Before determining if a new rate or product offering is to paired with a form of enabling technology, utilities could benefit from spending time understanding potential customer concerns with that technology and identifying the available pool of participants who would qualify for and be willing to accept such technology so that realistic expectations for recruitment can be set ahead of time.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
There will be enough customers that pre-qualify to receive a certain type of enabling technology e.g., central air conditioning to receive a programmable, controllable thermostat) and are willing/able to accept it such that recruitment goals can be met. By not quantifying the size of the available population that pre-qualified for a piece of enabling technology and were willing/able to accept and install or have it install, some utilities substantially overestimated the level of acceptance for a new rate or product offering that was strictly paired with such enabling technologies.

Avoid Confusing Messages

Without better education material, more effective communications methods, including consideration of how customers prefer to receive information, and more consistent messaging strategies, the chances for confusion and misunderstandings are very high. This can undermine success of the study as well as other customer-facing activities and programs.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Traditional forms of communication (e.g., bill stuffers, mailers, postcards, door hangers, and websites) will be adequate for utilities to sufficiently educate customers about the time-based rate and technology offerings. Several of the projects said that their educational materials were not successful in explaining the complexities of the various rate and technology offerings. As a result, some customers felt they made poor decisions about participating in the study, which they later regretted.

Notification on Price Changes

Ensure notification processes include options for customers to dynamically select the frequency of delivery (e.g., individual messages, daily summary, etc.) and specific method(s) for delivery (e.g., e-mail, text, phone, etc.)

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Customers want more, not less, frequent notification of price changes and notifications of critical peak events so they can be sufficiently prepared to respond appropriately. Several of the notification processes for critical peak events, and the higher prices that go with them, involved too many messages and left many customers feeling frustrated and annoyed. In addition, several utilities said they had problems notifying customers when critical peak events occurred on consecutive days when the need for multiple notifications caused additional customer confusion and dissatisfaction. Through focus groups and surveys customers indicated that they prefer more clear, concise and less frequent, but still timely notifications about events.

Developing Tests and Protocols

When developing internal tests and protocols for major process steps, logistics and procedures, make sure to include plans for addressing impacts on one System due to problems that arise in another (e.g., billing System needs due to communication System problems).

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
End-to-end internal testing of the major process steps, logistics, and procedures (e.g., how to broadcast announcements of critical peak events) would be sufficient to identify and fix all problems; only very minor problems would remain that would not be costly to address. Two of the projects said they had substantial problems communicating upcoming critical peak events or changes in prices to customers, which resulted in the need to revise monthly bills, make adjustments, and provide credits.

Friends and Family Participation

Having "Friends and Family" of the utility (e.g., company executives, CBS program managers, and staff) "participate" in the study and readily report back issues and problems frequently is helpful in alleviating them before they happen and/or resolve them faster when they do occur.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Should problems arise during the study, affected customers would notify utility staff in a timely manner. When problems arose, relying on customer reports was unreliable and often meant that certain issues went unreported or took longer to report than they should have, and thus went unresolved for longer than necessary which interfered with timely problem resolution.

Use Your Own Experience and Data

If customers are provided with enabling technologies which will be paired with time-based rate or other programs, careful planning for acquiring, provisioning, managing, and supporting this equipment is paramount. Plans cannot be based on vendor claims and marketing materials alone, they must be tempered with actual utility experiences. This often means that processes need to be tested and documented under circumstances similar to those expected when the technologies are actually made available to customers. Otherwise, the risk of major hurdles is high.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Integrating enabling technologies such as in-home displays and programmable communicating thermostats into time-based rate programs would be straightforward and generally consistent with the expectations set by vendors. Several of the notification processes for critical peak events, and the higher prices that go with them, involved too many messages and left many customers feeling frustrated and annoyed. In addition, several utilities said they had problems notifying customers when critical peak events occurred on consecutive days when the need for multiple notifications caused additional customer confusion and dissatisfaction. Through focus groups and surveys customers indicated that they prefer more clear, concise and less frequent, but still timely notifications about events.


Multi-Day Critical Peak Events

In July, 2013, successive heat waves across the country caused air conditioning and peak electricity demand levels to soar. At the time, several SGIG utilities were implementing critical peak pricing (CPP) and critical peak rebate (CPR) programs to provide customers with incentives for reducing their use of electricity during peak periods. When critical peak event days are called, and the programs go into effect, customers are expected to reduce electricity consumption by raising air-conditioning thermostat set-points, postponing chores like dishes and clothes washing, and rescheduling other activities during some of the hottest times of day. Here are a few of the lessons learned from those experiences.

Notifications are Subject to Unexpected Errors

Utility processes rely on broadcasts using various communications channels, including email, voice, and text messages, and web announcements. Issues arise if notification systems fail to work as expected and customers get billed for critical peak rates when they didn't know a critical peak event had actually occurred. Designs of notification systems and messaging differ among the utilities making it difficult to draw broad-based conclusions.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Existing utility processes and procedures will work properly and the vast majority of participating customers will receive notification of critical peak events. Thus, the processes and procedures do not require a quality assurance activity to assess the effectiveness of the distribution and delivery of the event notification messages. In most cases, initial utility processes for notifying customers about critical peak events did not work reliably and effectively every time. In some cases, significant numbers of customers did not receive notification, and often these errors were not discovered until after-the-fact. There were a variety of factors that contributed to non-delivery and figuring the scope of the problems could be very labor intensive.

"Day of" Notification can Cause Confusion

When customers sign-up for the programs, they are asked how they would like to receive notification, and many choose to be notified in several ways. As a result, many customers receive notices through multiple channels on multiple days.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Customers will appreciate advance notice of critical peak event days so they won't be surprised when they occur and so that they will have time to plan steps for changing their activities, reducing their electricity consumption, and saving money during peak periods. Customers do in fact appreciate advance notification. However, during multi-day events, some utilities giving both "day before" and "day of" notifications found that customers got confused because they received too many and overlapping notices.

Addressing Customer Complaints is Manageable

Multi-day events can cause extra burdens and inconveniences, as customers may need to do more planning for rescheduling activities or endure stuffy homes for longer periods than expected.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Many customers will get frustrated during multi-day events, contact call centers repeatedly and complain, and eventually request to be removed from the programs altogether. Customers did complain more than normal during multi-day events, but call centers were well equipped to effectively address most customer issues. In post-event focus groups, many customers said they understood and were willing to accept the utilities' rationale for calling multi-day events. As a result, dropout rates from multi-day events were generally lower than expected as was customer frustration and unhappiness.

Analysis of Load Impacts is Still Underway

A major objective of the CBS projects is analyzing the magnitude of changes in customer behaviors due to exposure to time-based rate programs, and their effects on overall electricity consumption as well as peak demands. This includes analysis of those changes from year-to-year, and from day-to-day during multi-day events, since there is a concern about the persistence of customer response under such difficult conditions.

Initial Assumption Actual Experience
Over the course of multi-day events, customer reductions of peak electricity consumption will diminish as needs for various chores can no longer be deferred. Analysis of load impacts by the CBS utilities of last summer's multi-day events is still underway. Preliminary data suggests that there was very little, if any, attenuation of customer response to multi-day events.