Like most other industries, the widespread use of digital tools and platforms in the utility industry arose out of a need to gain more scalability and cost-effectiveness. But while software-as-a-service and other purely digital experiences have mostly been motivated by a need to find financial and operational efficiencies, the real value of a good utility program lies at the intersection of a modern digital experience and the ability to connect human expertise to each customer and need.

As customer behaviors change with expectations for managing turnkey services like residential and commercial energy usage through online and digital platforms, utilities must adapt their programs and systems to meet these demands or risk losing customer favorability. However, despite the trend of ‘digital everything’, relationships are still at the core of developing trust between energy end-users and their utilities.

Technological advancements that focus on improving communication and problem solving are one way that utilities can bring added value to customers. For example, while virtual assessment services that examined a home’s energy efficiency were available before the COVID-19 pandemic, these socially distanced programs became ever more important in the last year, particularly as many people began working from home and became intimately aware of their home’s energy usage, for better or worse. Where previously utility employees interacted minimally with homeowners as they independently walked a house to conduct a physical inspection of the home’s energy efficiency, virtual assessments now allowed for much more relationship-building between utilities and ratepayers, as customers used their own mobile devices and became actively engaged in the process. They could also see firsthand where the opportunities were to improve their home’s energy efficiency, rather than simply receive a written report at the end of the assessment.

The availability of digital tools and services like virtual assessments can certainly make things easier, but utilities must also consider how to ensure equitable access across their customer base, particularly for low-income, elderly, or rural communities where internet access, limited data plans, and mobile devices like tablets may not be as readily available, or where customers have specific preferences for engaging with and conducting a virtual audit. Digital platforms that help utilities manage the end-to-end customer experience can also help with identifying the barriers to adoption for more advanced energy efficiency solutions. This level of insight gives utilities the opportunity to offer alternative solutions, including discounts for energy-saving products, like different types of heat pumps for various applications and LEDs that can help customers save more money on electricity bills.

Other ways utilities can bring added value to customers is by providing new data streams that allow for a more transparent view of individual energy usage, tailored solutions at the click of a button via online customer portals or e-newsletters (such as tips for keeping the home cool and incentives for purchasing ENERGY STAR® certified appliances or other items), and greater control over how to manage their unique challenges. Through robust analytics, such as details on the age of a customer’s home and insulation system, AC unit, meter-based energy usage statistics, or other unique data points, utilities can begin energy efficiency assessments with a baseline of customer data that helps them better understand what’s most important to the customer as well as better adapt services and solutions to fit the customer’s specific needs and challenges, saving both time and money.

Digital tools and the ongoing search for ever-greater technological advancements may not be a new concept to the utility industry any longer, but the way in which these tools are used and the goals for how they can add the most value should continue to evolve to be more customer-centric and go further than simply identifying cost efficiencies. The result of making this shift in focus will pay dividends for utilities as they build more trust with their end-users, encourage better energy efficiency behaviors, and earn more long-lasting loyalty among their customers.