Customer Portals: 11 Lessons for Making It Educational and Engaging
Utilities have long communicated with their customers through printed materials that accompany the monthly statement. Although this is necessary (and often required by regulations), it is no longer sufficient. Customers now expect (and even demand) to communicate via the Internet with all of their service providers, including their utilities. Indeed, the customer portal is destined to become the primary means of engaging consumers with the smart grid, as well as the user interface to existing customer information systems.
The top two smart grid priorities for utilities, according to a recent GTM Research survey are reducing peak demand and improving energy efficiency, being cited by 71% and 45% of the respondents, respectively. Achieving these priorities will require something Web portals do very well: educate and engage consumers. Indeed, perhaps nothing today is more effective at educating, engaging and, yes, even entertaining consumers as the Web.
The real question facing utilities, therefore, is: What constitutes an educational and engaging portal? While it is too soon to have a complete set of “best practices” for utility customer portals, there are many lessons to be learned from the early experience of utilities and the proven practices in other sectors, including the media, education and financial services. Here are eleven such lessons for making a good customer portal.
Lesson #1 is that portals should be very easy to navigate. Organization is key to avoiding confusion, and no resource should be more than three clicks away from the home page. To keep users from getting “lost” while navigating, the best portals keep the Main Menu available on every page. The use of drop-down menus also helps improve and expedite navigation. And don’t forget the Site Map, which can serve as an index or “table of contents” for the site.
While determining an optimal approach to navigation, it is important to be mindful of Lesson #2: Not all customers are the same. The 2011 E2 (Energy + Environment) Study by Market Strategies International categorized respondents into five consumer segments based on their beliefs and preferences: Anything Clean; Ultra Green; Atomic Efficiency; No Nukes; and Carbon is King. The first four segments naturally responded favorably to utilities implementing smart grid technologies. But even a majority of the Carbon is King segment responded favorably! So there should be something on the portal for everyone, even the skeptics.
Lesson #3 is to make the portal a genuine portal, and not just “power propaganda.” Include information about the utility and its programs, of course (more on this next), but also include links to weather forecasts (very important for setting thermostats), energy-related news, sites specializing in energy efficiency tips, pertinent government and regulatory sites, etc. Making it comprehensive will help make the portal the “go-to” site for all things energy.
Lesson #4 is to make the portal “one-stop-shopping” for the utility. Every customer-facing aspect of the utility’s operation should be accessible on or via the portal. And literally, do not forget the shopping by selling (or linking to a site that sells) home energy efficiency and management solutions—from LED bulbs to sophisticated controllers and switches (for the more enthusiastic Anything Cleans and Ultra Greens).
Lesson #5 is to make the portal mobile-friendly. During an outage, a smartphone or tablet may be the only way customers will be able to get access the portal to learn about outage status and restoration efforts. Of course, many customers may normally access the site from a tablet, and many may want occasional access while away from home to check status or change a thermostat setting. So make sure key content is both navigable and visible on the small screen.
Lesson #6 is to make the content truly educational. Provide tips on how to conserve energy (and save money!). Provide how-to and reference information on smart thermostats, in-home displays, load control switches, etc. Educate customers on the smart grid and its many benefits. Report on trends, such as electric vehicles, smart appliances and distributed renewable energy, and offer advice on how consumers can take advantage of these.
Lesson #7 is to make the portal “personal”; that is, include or have links to customer-specific information about historic energy utilization, comparisons with similar customers, targeted tips for improving energy efficiency, statement status, account management, etc. Also consider doing this in the context of an “official” program, such as the Green Button initiative, to give it greater status.
Lesson #7 leads to Lesson #8: Make the site secure. The technologies for securing Web sites are fully standardized, mature and proven in practice. So be sure to make the portal solidly secure, and include a statement about the utility’s privacy practices to make customers feel more comfortable using it.
Lesson #9 is to make the portal interactive. Let customers opt in and/or out of various programs, such as an email newsletter or special program. Let them complain in a blog or some other forum. Let customers interact with one another to ask questions and share experiences. These discussions would need to be monitored, but they help build goodwill, and can be a great source of feedback and trends to help guide future decisions.
Lesson #10 is to make it (at least a little) entertaining. Put up some cartoons, including some with a bit of self-deprecating humor. Hold some contests. Have some energy-related games or puzzles for kids of all ages. These techniques will help engage certain consumer segments better, and can make home energy management less intimidating.
And finally, Lesson #11 is to promote the portal by displaying the domain name prominently on the statement, and occasionally including a promotional flier in the mailings. A portal, done well, can be a great way to foster goodwill and build the utility’s brand with residential and business customers. So take pride in your customer portal and make it a real asset.
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About the Author
Louis Szablya is VP of marketing and product management at Energate, Inc., where he is responsible for marketing, product management and partner programs. Prior to joining Energate, Szablya was Director of Smart Grid Integration at SAIC, a Smart Grid and Utility Consultant, and VP of Sales and Delivery at GridPoint.