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March 11, 2013

How Your Community Can Help Your Business Succeed

Posted by Ashiss K Dash (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:04 AM

I'm in the power business. It's my job to make sure energy companies around the world transform themselves into modern organizations.

From my office in Los Angeles, I work with utilities around the world that are in various stages of development. In India, for example, they're dealing with a population boom where a sizeable chunk of the country is entering the middle class. That crowd wants electricity to power air conditioners, computers, and kitchen appliances. India's challenge is to build power plants fast enough to keep up with demand. In the United States, it's a different story. Mass expansion of the electric network happened more than 100 years ago. The challenge for American Utilities is to update much of that aging infrastructure.

What India and America have in common - as do most other countries I've traveled to - is that power providers are learning the importance of effective consumer collaboration. And this can be a tough nut to crack sometimes; especially in the case of some century-old utilities that have a reactive gene in their DNA when it comes to dealing with the public.  Of course, I don't imply that the person off the street must be called upon to run enormous generators. What I mean is that all utilities, wherever they are, are becoming partners with their communities to develop and distribute cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy. I like to say that, at the macroeconomic level, utilities should be well positioned to transform their role from commodity suppliers to energy solution providers.

When an executive begins to ask himself/herself what's the future of his/her utility, community participation and insights can be very helpful. True, what works in southern California might not work as well in southern India; demography matters. But often the issues can be very similar. For example, you wouldn't believe the number of times I've heard from otherwise large and successful companies that they don't have a good web site, or that they don't have skill sets in-house to get the community involved with their long-term goals. But then again, there are other utilities that are proactive when it comes to making the community a part of their transformation. Atlanta Gas & Light, for example, has a Twitter following so extensive that it would make some Hollywood celebrities envious. Southern California Edison has an iPhone app with a host of neat features.

A large part of the population doesn't really care about their power utilities - as long as their power is on. But companies are changing that kind of apathy by staging neighborhood campaigns for energy efficiency at which they hand out bumper stickers, refreshments, and generally just get to know their customers. They're using viral marketing campaigns, and even hiring trusted people from their communities to serve as brand ambassadors. If this all sounds fairly straightforward, it is. But it's a different way of doing things from what many utilities have become accustomed to for 100 years.

Sometimes old ways of doing things - that is, being reactive instead of proactive - result in a breakdown of trust between utilities and their customers. Remember what happened in the 1990s in California, when regulators were overcharging for power because of rates fixed by the now-defunct Enron Corp.? Or more recently, when the Long Island Power Authority struggled in its response to vast power outages after Superstorm Sandy on the east coast of the United States last fall? Both episodes eroded consumer confidence. 

If a customer doesn't understand their local utility, their utility won't understand them. I often provide the utilities that I work with a set of questions that they should expect to hear from anxious customers. How long will present energy sources last? Will converting to new energy sources cost more? If so, how much? How can I get involved to help my community and my utility become more sustainable? 

Think about what happened with the nuclear power plant meltdown after the tsunami hit Japan in 2011. Advocates of nuclear power had been working tirelessly for decades to tout its advantages, cleanliness, and efficiency. Now, after one tidal wave, they're back to where they started. The case for nuclear energy becomes even more interesting given that some consumers are becoming more concerned about sustainability than ever before.

Utilities don't necessarily need to run town hall-style forums. But they should at least have some kind of platform for these discussions to take place, whether online or in, say, a local high school gymnasium.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking: What does giving away bumper stickers have to do with the bottom line? The answer is: A lot. Utilities provide power to the masses, and the more that the masses are on board with how they generate and supply the energy, the more efficient and profitable those companies will be over the long haul. It is the collective power of ideas that can transform the power industry.

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