Selling the Smart Grid

on March 27, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Utilities converting to smart meters must find out how the new technology creates value for their customers, and not just financial value, experts told the Edison Foundation’s Powering the People 2.0 conference in Washington, DC March 22.

Utilities nationwide are wrestling with how to get customers to buy into the potential the new technology offers. Smart meters have met resistance from customers citing privacy worries, claims of health issues from the meters’ communication chips, and charges the devices are a subterfuge to raise electricity prices.

Peter Honebein, founder of the Customer Performance Group, said that too often, utilities try to sell engineering technology. “Stop being so rational!” he urged.

“Successful innovations must delight people,” said Lisa Hillenbrand, Global Marketing Director for Proctor & Gamble, adding it’s vital to find out what really matters to consumers.

She recounted P&G’s discovery that the chief selling point for its diapers was not any product improvement but the fact that the diapers were absorptive enough to let babies sleep through the night – and that made babies ready to learn and develop better the next day. Helping babies was what mothers wanted to hear about, not the details of diaper design, she said.

Do Your Homework

Honebein urged utilities to “see customers as co-creators of value.” Listen to customers, see how they actually use technology, and use that information to adapt and innovate quickly, he urged. Identify the “emotional benefits” customers can get from the new technology, and sell those, like the ability to track power usage all month and avoid end-of-the-month sticker shock.

Non-utility businesses are already seeing opportunity in the customer resistance and confusion.

Jon Lanning of Best Buy described his company’s decision to open its first Home Energy Management departments in Best Buy stores in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco.

Lanning said Best Buy felt there was demand for a one-stop location where customers could find out about both the technology available, including home energy devices that Best Buy sells, and how to take advantage of that technology, including utility and government programs and incentives.

“We feel the floodgates are about to open” – Lanning

Lanning said customers are surprised to see the new departments, and spend an average of 25 minutes there when they come in. “The average customer has no understanding” of electricity to begin with, let alone of the new complexities, he said.

“We feel the floodgates are about to open” for products and services in energy management, Lanning said. Making sure people can use the products they buy – called “walk out working” – is one way Best Buy can distinguish itself from the competition, he added.

A Page From the Apple Playbook

Honebein said the business culture in some utilities is “skeet shooting” – any new idea gets shot down. That culture needs to be changed to effectively engage customers in innovation, he said.

Judith Schwartz, President of To The Point, said employees can be a utility’s “best secret weapon” and “ambassadors” to create not just acceptance of new technology, but excitement about it.

She used to work for Apple, and she urged utilities to take a page from Apple’s approach to employees. “Steve Jobs never talked about the money we were going to make,” she said. “He told us how we were going to change the world.”