This blog was originally posted on Comverge.com. Itron acquired Comverge on June 1, 2017, and  all future demand response blogs will be posted here. 

Earlier this month, J.D. Power released its 2015 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study-the 17th annual edition. This year’s report includes great news for utilities, and not just for our client Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, which ranked highest among eastern midsize utilities in customer satisfaction for the eighth year in a row. Overall customer satisfaction with residential electric utility companies has improved for the third consecutive year of the study, even as the average monthly bill remains unchanged. Satisfaction currently averages 668 out of 1,000 on J.D. Power’s scale, up 21 points from 2014.

Utilities have a lot to be proud of. Still, there are clear areas for improvement-for instance, communication and engagement. Says Andrew Heath, Senior Director of Energy at J.D. Power, “We have preference questions we ask: ‘How frequently would you like to hear from your utility?’ Even the best performers in terms of communication volume, those best performers are still well short of what customers want.” In fact, customers want as much as twice the amount of communication they’re currently getting.

Just because customers don’t feel communicated with doesn’t mean utilities aren’t trying. Proactive communications from a utility, such as phone calls, emails, and text messages, are only reaching 7.3% of customers, according to the report. A number this low suggests a disconnect, potentially in the channels that utilities are using. User-friendly mobile applications that are linked to a customer’s smart thermostat allow for remote temperature adjustments, and offer personalized, actionable, and relevant energy savings tips and push notifications that can help keep customers continually engaged and more easily reachable by their utility. These features also pave the way for successful integrated demand response and energy efficiency programs that have been proven to deliver impressive cost-effectiveness results for the utilities that implement them.

Using smart thermostats as the touchpoint to connect with customers and make their energy interactions more meaningful can have a lot of upside for utilities today. By the end of this year, nearly half of all thermostats sold will be connected two-way smart thermostats, according to new research from Parks Associates, and the way in which customers are obtaining them is evolving. Increasingly, customers are turning to retail stores and the HVAC channel, showing proactive interest in adding smart thermostats to their homes. To maintain their role as a trusted energy advisor to their customers, utilities can leverage these third-party smart thermostats for bring your own device (BYOD) demand response programs, which provide value-added services to these customers but do involve new complexities.

Thermostat Graph

By taking steps forward, such as integrated demand response/energy efficiency programs, smart thermostat offerings, or even BYOD programs, utilities can help ensure that 2016 is another year of improvement for customer satisfaction.

Jason Cigarran