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What is Customer "Empowerment" anyway, and How Can Utilities Get Started?

There has been much discussion about utilities needing to provide greater customer "empowerment" as a requisite for the emerging "smart grid" world we are now entering. But beyond this nice buzzword, what does "empowerment" really mean, and how are utilities supposed to start down this path of providing it? If we look at our industry today, energy and water consumers are generally not provided with a lot of information related to how they consume what utilities deliver - namely electricity, gas and water. We are typically operating within a paradigm of providing consumers with a monthly bill of "consumption" with no meaningful presentation of data that allows consumers to take action. Certainly there are many utilities that are well down the path here with some sophisticated programs, but generally speaking we are all just beginning this journey together. "Empowerment" is important on several fronts: 1) against the backdrop of more efficient production and consumption of resources, consumers represent a critical element to meeting these objectives, and 2) in an increasingly competitive industry landscape, consumers will be drawn to utilities (including energy retailers) that best "empower" them in how they can more effectively consume energy and water. Cost savings is one element, but the "green" element is also important to many consumers. There are many pieces that can be put in place to achieve a "big bang" approach to greater customer "empowerment." Over time, it seems pretty clear most utilities will embark on this journey. But for the large number of utilities that are just beginning these initiatives, what is a good place to start? From my perspective, deploying a web self-service portal for utility consumers is a relatively low cost - and low risk - starting point to go beyond the traditional paradigm. A portal, even as a deployment within existing legacy systems, will expand the types of customer service channels available to consumers, and can begin to "empower" them with greater and better information on their energy and water usage. The key of course is to select a portal that not only provides immediate benefits around account management, bill presentment and online payment, but also one that can adapt and expand as new components and systems like AMI, MDM and upgraded CIS are added to the mix. Deploying a portal in this manner provides the immediate benefits to utility consumers (and to utilities through lower live agent support costs), while providing the vehicle for more advanced "pilots" involving real-time analytics and energy efficiency/demand management programs which will take more time to mature in the market.

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