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"If it were up to me, I wouldn't have a meter."

— M.L., Toronto, Canada

Creating a Customer-centric Culture

It sounds nice but what does that really mean in practice? While conducting interviews for several case studies, it’s become apparent to me that some corporate cultures are better than others at cultivating customer awareness.

On our panel “Engaging the New Energy Consumer” at Powering the People 2.0 hosted by the Edison Foundation on March 22, Lisa Hellenbrand of Proctor & Gamble described a standard operating practice at the company that is synonymous with excellent brand management and consumer marketing.  Everyone—CEO, executives, product managers, not just customer service reps—regularly and frequently has informal conversations with consumers to learn what they think about P&G products, competitive choices, and their daily habits and preferences that might suggest new product opportunities.  The CEO travels to foreign countries to visit people in their homes to listen to their concerns.


P&G relies heavily on the full range of qualitative and quantitative market research techniques, to a degree that goes far beyond what most utilities collect. Yet, personal conversations allow P&G to interpret the data they collect more effectively.


Routinely speaking with prospective customers, family, and friends was also the secret sauce of Logitech’s founders, executives, and (in my opinion) the best product marketing managers in high tech.  Logitech also fields a great market research organization but its ability to reinvent innovative consumer products year after year directly stems from this practice of engaging directly with consumers.


Whether it’s interpreting trends found in anonymized aggregated data, evaluating results of primary research or secondary studies, or watching a focus group exchange, the experience of talking informally with customers adds value.  Understanding local priorities will provide a context when reviewing national or international research studies.


The reason that I’m so enthusiastic about “energy worldviews” is that after speaking with and interviewing thousands of energy consumers over the past few years, I have observed common patterns that transcend demographics and are consistent across all the studies.  Personal conversations don’t replace formal research activities, they complement them—which is why human-centered design firms like IDEO and frog have been part of so many transformative and innovative product introductions.


The utility business is technology-centric and many in leadership roles are brilliant engineers.  It is common practice in utility communication organizations to rely heavily on data-driven approaches and behavioral science studies.  Command and control messaging doesn’t allow one to switch gears if another line of reasoning would be more effective and helpful. New social media channels, which facilitate two-way exchange, provide even more valuable insights when one has a reference framework informed by live, face-to-face interactions conducted offline.


Everyone you know is an energy consumer and we have a competitive advantage few industries enjoy.


Observational research is free and subjects are ubiquitous. If everyone in the organization is encouraged to reach out to their friends, family, and neighbors as a matter of course, you will learn a great deal about how people perceive your brand and how to exceed customers’ expectations.  There will also be many opportunities to educate, correct misinformation, generate positive word of mouth, and identify smart energy champions within the community.


Next—How do you scale these ideas when you have more than a million customers?


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