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December 11, 2014

Why a Utilities Game Is Afoot

Posted by Ashiss K Dash (View Profile | View All Posts) at 4:56 AM

Gamification will drive customer engagements in the utilities industry

When the city of Detroit went dark last week, the event was a grim reminder of just how old a lot of America's energy infrastructure is going. Electric cables and transformers that date back to the 19th century only have so much life left in them.

Of course, Detroit like many other cities is going through its own challenges - the beleaguered city has filed for bankruptcy and has trouble finding the funds to keep municipal agencies humming. Yet the prospect of a massive power outage should be a wake-up call to all utilities that are focusing on improving their equipment and customer service. Amidst this, well, dark backdrop I've become a fan - like many utilities executives around the world - of a way to pump life into customer service and engagement and have a lot of fun while doing it. I'm talking about gamification.

Now don't get me wrong here: I'm not talking about an electric utility's version of Grand Theft Auto or Angry Birds. I'm referring to an interface that leverages the human psychology in a way that leads to significant corporate efficiencies and cost-savings. The psychological aspect primarily focuses on the human urge to win - or, better yet, beat one's neighbor in a friendly contest. The very best enterprise gamification platforms are such that the consumers 'playing' along don't realize they're part of a structured, customer engagement program.

That's important, because an organization can learn a lot about its consumer base when that base doesn't know it's being studied and scrutinized. Even more important is the fact that utilities have a lot of catching up to do in the realm of customer engagement when compared to other sectors. In the retail world, for example, stores are well versed in using sophisticated IT platforms and data mining techniques that tell them what kind of customer is buying which product and what kinds of promotions bring the most people through the door (or onto the website). Utilities in America were heavily regulated for most of the last century, so the desire to connect with customers was never an element that ingrained in their corporate culture.

That desire to connect sure is becoming ingrained today, however. And it is moving very fast. Along with a mandate to renew and update the country's energy infrastructure, utilities are dealing with the pains that come with de-regulation; that is, become self-sustaining, profitable enterprises. But there still are regulations to deal with in this brave new world. Consumers are also curious to participate in key initiatives like Energy Efficiency programs. A combination of de-regulation with energy-savings goals makes gamification the ideal technique for many utilities to more forward with their ambitious plans.

Gamification is going to help them get to where they want to be in the next decade. Here's one ingenious example: Rhode Island might be America's smallest state by area but it's big on sophisticated gamification platforms to save energy. The state's electric provider, National Grid, has instituted a program whereby customers can compete with their neighbors to save on household energy. Those households that do the best are rewarded with special deals and coupons redeemable at retailers like Amazon.com, Home Depot, and even Starbucks. The utility not only pits neighbor against neighbor, some of its gamification tools involve town-wide contests. The community of North Smithfield became the first in Rhode Island to get 5 percent of its residents to join a community energy-saving contest. National Grid's response? The town received $7,500 towards eco-friendly products like solar panels and specially insulated window frames.

Contests like these succeed because customers can go online to experience customized gamification portals to see how their households and their communities measure up. The urge to succeed is a strong human emotion, and when it's presented in easy-to-use online dashboards, customers feel more engaged with the utility and its energy saving efforts. Those savings will go a long way in updating an infrastructure that's in dire need of it. Gamification IT in the utilities space ensures that everyone is part of that mission.

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