Smart meters will let electricity customers monitor usage almost minute by minute, allowing them to adjust how much they consume and, theoretically at least, lower their utility bills. So why, after Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) installed a few thousand smart meters in the San Joaquin Valley in California, did customers in the summer of 2009 complain about bills soaring and at least one person sue?
Some customers did have higher bills post-installation, and they claimed that the smart meters were the reason. As far as they were concerned that was the only change. People are generally pre-disposed to resisting change and here was a classic example of jumping to the conclusion that the meters were at fault.
To address the issue, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) commissioned Structure Consulting Group to study the complaints this past spring. They issued the findings and report this September.
According to the report, the meters worked properly. Bills were up for several reasons, including a searing 2009 July heat wave the first month after the installation. However, the report did identify "gaps in customer services and processes related to high bill complaints, and determined certain PG&E practices to be partially non-compliant relative to industry best practices."
In other words, this was mostly, if not completely, a customer service issue, not a technical one. Overlooking customer service is, unfortunately, not a unique problem. How often have we seen organizations spend all of their time perfecting the technology and none of it developing a proper customer communications plan?
Liz Enbysk, managing editor of Smart Grid News, blogged about this report, quoting CPUC Commissioner Nancy E. Ryan, "The Structure report makes clear that the transition to a smart grid is not just a technological event. Consumers won't fully realize the many potential benefits of smart meters and other grid upgrades unless utilities and regulators place more emphasis on the human side of the equation... Better communication and customer service will help ensure that consumers see smart meters as something that is done for them, not to them."
Heads at PG&E should be shaking over this avoidable customer service problem. With some foresight, the utility should have been able to anticipate and prepare for the high possibility of backlash. Anticipation, preparation and practice are at the heart of risk communication, a strategy for handling potential negative reactions by audiences before they happen. Employing risk communication can be a terrific way to avoid the need for crisis communications.
Risk communication builds trust and credibility with key audiences. Based on decades of university-level behavioral science research and practice by a team led by Dr. Vincent Covello, at the Center for Risk Communication, this strategy addresses the potential for anger, fear, or skepticism generated by real or perceived threats, the same types of reactions generated after those smart meters were installed.
Risk communication is effective where ordinary communications (benefits, reassuring messages, etc.) are not. High concern issues change the rules of communication, requiring an approach that:
- Enhances knowledge and understanding;
- Builds trust and credibility;
- Encourages appropriate attitudes, behaviors and beliefs.
For an example of how risk communication can work, I invite you to read the Center's excellent study of its implementation during the 1999 outbreak of West Nile Virus in New York City. The study's authors say that while NYC got much right, there were some excellent lessons to be learned for future situations of this kind.
Energy companies would be smart themselves to treat the implementation of the Smart grid as a high concern issue; it will take people out of a decades long comfort zone and into some unknown energy usage territory. What industry needs to realize is that the technology alone will not convince people. This is going to take a holistic communications strategy comprising of educating people about the use of the technology, providing them with guiding documents, explaining in detail how they will benefit, employing various customer feedback opportunities, and using diverse outreach tactics to ensure customers have been exposed to sufficient information.
Rejection of the smart grid is not an option, so why not make it that much easier to implement through an intelligent risk communication strategy?
Sheldon Reiffenstein is Director of Client Engagement, Maga Design Group, Washington, D.C.