This article is the first in a three-part series that explores how electricity utilities can avoid their very own “Kodak moment” by becoming more customer-focused and creating a diversified offering portfolio that meets the conditions of a new competitive marketplace.
Utilities can no longer be considered as the sole-players in regulated markets but as the dominant incumbents in competitive, geographically-limited markets.
By 2018, the combination of solar power plus battery storage is expected to be financially viable for Australian energy consumers. Therefore, consumers will be able to address the majority of their power needs and effectively compete with utilities. Furthermore, energy consultancy Accenture has determined that Australian energy users interact with their utility provider for an average of just 12 minutes per year and that the majority of energy users do not interact at all.
For utilities, the combination of disruptive technology plus poor customer engagement could bring about a huge and devastating loss of market share. In the US, where market conditions for utilities are comparable to those in Australia, the investment community has already started taking note. Investment bank Barclays became the fifth major Wall Street firm to issue economic analyses or downgrade warnings for the power sector.
However, this need not be the case. Utilities have a small window of opportunity to innovate out of their dilemma. A renewed focus on the customer will be the key to their future.
Utilities have two major problems when facing this challenge. The first is their legacy issues. They developed to provide electricity to every home and business in an economically efficient way. They have built huge and complex empires amidst tightly controlled regulation and have been very successful in doing so.
Utilities also own some of the oldest business models on the planet. So change will not be easy and they will meet strong headwinds from inside and outside their organisations as their time-honoured business models come under challenge.
The second is lack of vision or, perhaps, an inability to clearly articulate it. Utilities appear to be holding onto their traditional business models for dear life. The attempts to demonise renewable energy are strong evidence for this. But a powerful and catalysing vision that is well-articulated to their employees, regulators and customers will help them to change the game.
For a suitable vision, they need look no further than their customer’s list of expectations. Anecdotally, energy users expect their electricity supply to be:
- affordable over the long term
- produced in an environmentally sustainable manner
- safe, and
- transparent in terms of cost; and furthermore,
- the average consumer now has high service expectations from modern businesses (e.g. Apple and Google) and utilities should allow their customers to engage with them in easy, interesting and profitable ways.
At the moment we have an industry that really focuses on only two of these attributes – reliability & safety – whilst either ignoring or window dressing the rest. These two attributes are unquestionably important, but should not trump the rest.
Furthermore, utilities need to start looking at the grid as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, just as customers do. So, what is the future of utilities? Unquestionably they need to think big. They also need to think well beyond their current regulatory and economic constraints, and develop a vision that places the customer first to ensure their future.
Over the next two articles, I will show how utilities can start thinking customer-first. This will be boiled down to a simple strategic marketing structure of the “seven P’s” – Place, Positioning, Product, Price, Promotion, People and Processes. As introduction to this, let us consider the first “P” question to be addressed – the place that a utility competes.
Place – the customer comes first
For a utility, their market place is largely fixed by the geographic area in which they operate, but what is more interesting is what happens within that area. Given the new technology in play, utilities need to think how every consumer could become a prosumer (both an electricity producer and consumer). What type of grid would we need if every building had solar panels on its roof and battery storage in the garage? And how would our grid look if every large commercial and industrial facility ran a cogeneration or trigeneration plant? What if homes could sell their power directly to aggregators and businesses, and manage their home consumption to increase their market offering?
Utilities need to evolve from being distributors of electricity to energy enablers. It will require utilities to prioritise their resources in enabling their customers to interact with the grid rather than getting more power into and through it.
Enabling ideas like this not only requires regulation changes but a whole different set of skills, products and processes which I will address in the next two articles. The second can be read here, and the third here.
James Allston, an Australian, is the Strategic Marketing Manager for Energy & Environmental Services at Siemens AG in Germany, and a co-founder and former Vice-President of the Energy Efficiency Council in Australia. He is a specialist in strategically marketing and developing businesses that create a sustainable energy future. His views are his own and not representative of Siemens AG or its subsidiaries.