How COVID-19 is changing utility customer engagement

Apr 13, 2020
3 MIN. READ

The impacts of COVID-19 are reshaping everyday life. At ICF, we’re working to help our utility clients in North America urgently and thoughtfully respond to this life-changing crisis. 

For the utilities industry, disseminating critical health, safety, and resiliency information remains the top priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies, however, know this isn’t the only role they can play during this crisis. They have seized this moment to ensure they continue to help customers manage energy use—a critical need given that more than 90% of the country is now under instructions to stay indoors.

As the world adjusts to life during a pandemic, ICF and our full-service marketing and customer engagement team, ICF Next, are tracking the shift in consumer behaviors across multiple sectors:

  • Healthcare
  • Environment
  • Infrastructure resilience
  • Energy

Leveraging these insights and decades of expertise in communicating with energy customers, we are helping utilities adapt their customer engagement strategies to navigate this crisis and strengthen their relationships with consumers.

Evolving to match the moment

In today’s environment, every message a utility sends its customers is even more sensitive than usual. Messaging that focuses heavily on sales of services or programs irrelevant to customers misses the mark—and can critically risk brand reputation.

Here are three principles we use to mitigate those risks and deepen utility relationships with consumers:

  1. Be a trusted voice. During the pandemic, customers are placing increasing trust in experts to convey critical information. Now is not the time to go silent – but rather to provide empathetic, relevant messaging on energy habits that are clear, transparent, and frequent. As the crisis continues, utilities can evolve their messaging to help customers manage changing energy use by providing tips and resources.
  2. Meet consumers where they are. During crises that compel consumers to stay home, media consumption invariably increases. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been especially true for web browsing, television, and social media channels. At ICF, we’re helping utilities strategically evolve media plans to virtually engage with consumers as their habits shift, such as reallocating media spending from outdoor and transit to more in-home channels like direct mail, digital placements, and outbound calls.
  3. Plan for uncertainty.Based on the rapidly changing situations within utility service territories, we’re working with utilities to update approaches in real time. For some clients, we’re pausing media campaigns, refreshing messaging, and building plans for re-entering the market when the time is right. For others, we’re scaling back media spending where it makes the most sense and shifting the media mix to engage appropriately.

Help consumers put their home and energy to work for them

As families spend more and more time at home, they increase their use of electric products and overall household daily electricity. They are also more concerned about finances, which could translate to greater interest in energy efficiency for the home.

This is proving to be true. We have seen an increase in the sale of energy efficient products, such as LED bulbs, and the implementation of home DIY projects. While it's important to carefully consider the timing of sales campaigns, we anticipate that utility programs that reduce the price of energy-efficient products are likely to increase in value.

Rather than putting their energy efficiency programs on hold, several utilities are serving customer needs by shifting their delivery models. Some innovative engagement models include:

  • Virtual energy audits. We are helping several utilities across the country turn in-home energy audit programs into virtual audits that connect consumers with an auditor via phone or video. The auditor walks the customer through the steps needed to provide data on their home’s efficiency, records the data, and produces personalized efficiency recommendations.
  • DIY installation of smart thermostats. We’re working with another utility to convert programs structured around the professional installation of smart thermostats into a self-install model using digital or phone-based instruction and support, such as video instruction and SMS.
  • Kits for kids. We’re partnering with another utility to develop a “Kits for kids” program. Tapping into children’s curiosity and use of remote learning, it leads them through a “treasure hunt” of their home’s energy use. When complete, they are sent a package with products like LEDs and advanced power strips. The kits introduce energy efficiency habits and products that, in turn, re-engage the household with their utility.

What this rapidly changing environment means for the consumer’s long-term relationship with their utility remains uncertain. But by leveraging emerging insights, utilities can nimbly and effectively navigate customer engagement in this new era.

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By Nancy Caplan and Francesca Jones
Vice President, Marketing

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