Navigant Research Blog

A Tale of Two Utilities

Neil Strother — January 3, 2012

Source: SDG&EAs the new year dawns, a look at two U.S. utilities paints a contrasting picture in terms of customer engagement during a smart meter deployment.
San Diego Gas & Electric (SG&E) has traveled a relatively smooth road as it nears the end of its installation of 1.4 million smart meters. Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has endured a bumpy ride as it continues with its smart meter rollout which has involved upgrading more than 8.8 million electric and gas meters. The California-based operator plans to wrap up its smart meter program in 2012, when the total will reach nearly 10 million endpoints.

Focusing on just customer engagement, SDG&E has set a high bar in its efforts by putting customers first and not just in words alone. According to the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), the San Diego operator:

  • Sent customer service representatives into the field to handle complaints
  • Trained entire staff on smart meters
  • Addressed complaints quickly
  • Identified old meters that were running slowly and called relevant customers one week later to explain potential bill increase
  • Sampled customer reactions with a door-to-door survey
  • Responded to emotional complaints with empathy as well as factual argument
  • As a result, while SDG&E received a few statements of health concerns, some high bill complaints, and requests for an opt-out option, the California Public Utilities Commission received far fewer complaints from SDG&E’s customers than PG&E’s.

    By contrast, PG&E’s rollout was noted for the following, again according to the Consumer Collaborative:

  • PG&E was early to deploy advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), but did not initially take significant steps to educate or inform customers
  • After receiving complaints, the utility developed an AMI marketing, education, and installation notification campaign
  • PG&E hired 165 call center employees to handle AMI-related inquiries
  • Despite the operator’s revamped customer engagement policy, some customers have continued to oppose the smart meter program. PG&E recently asked the California PUC for permission to give customers an opt-out option, and the PUC is expected to issue its decision on the matter in the coming weeks. So, this shows some progress on the part of PG&E as it tries to be more flexible in its dealings with customers.

    The point here is not to pile on PG&E – its own customers and the California PUC, among others, have done that well enough. PG&E deserves credit for being a pioneer with its smart meter deployment, and it has taken its share of arrows in doing so. But PG&E made a fundamental mistake early on: Not making customer engagement its top priority, and instead pushing ahead with its initial “our way or the highway” attitude. Not a good plan, especially as connected consumers have new online tools for organizing complaints, as we noted in our recent report, Social Media in the Utility Industry. PG&E seems to be on the right track for now, and we will continue to monitor this major utility as it moves ahead with its smart meter deployment in 2012. Other utility managers, meantime, should learn from past mistakes and keep customer engagement the top priority as they roll out smart meter projects.

    One Response to “A Tale of Two Utilities”

    1. Hal Larsen says:

      I’m proud to be one of the three senior SDG&E Retired Employees,(each with at least 40 yrs tenure), selected to conduct the door-to-door survey of Smart/Meter Customers. Early-on, our Management identified several Customer Outreach Goals, to include having a few seasoned customer-contact folks follow behind the Smart/Meter Installers by a week or two, knocking on doors to engage our Customers. Through this effort, we identified many issues that needed immediate attention and discussed many mis-conceptions customers may have had. Of prime importance here: Most customers were favoreably impressed that SDG&E would care enough to actually stop by in person; asking for their input. No amount of advertizing will gain this kind of positive response.
      Plus, we participated with our Smart/Meter Booth at local street fairs, the San Diego County Fair, and many Chamber of Commerce Meetings/Mixers.
      My feet are tired and sore; but the pay-off was obvious!!

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