Customers speak up

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by Teresa Hansen, editor in chief, and Jennifer Van Burkleo, associate editor

After tornadoes swept across the Midwest, specifically in Moore, Okla., in May, Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) took to Twitter to keep the public updated on outages and restoration times. On June 4, OG&E was still updating information regarding outages in Moore and surrounding areas: "Damage report: last weekend's tornadoes and storms took down more than 560 poles, more than 620 crossarms and about 160 transformers." No doubt it was partially because of its consistent updates and customer service that in June, the Edison Electric Institute awarded OG&E the Edison Award, one of the most prestigious honors for the utility industry.

Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) also took to social media, using Facebook to stay in contact with customers when storms hit its service area. On May 20, KCP&L posted "Our crews have restored 94 percent of customers who lost power during yesterday's storm. Our crews continue to work as safely and quickly as possible to restore service to those remaining without power." KCP&L also posts daily tips for saving energy.

Although the spotlight focused on the Midwest during the late-spring tornadoes, utilities across the nation are reaching out to customers during severe weather outbreaks. In addition, many are working to develop a dialog with customers year-round. "Customer engagement" has become a commonly used phrase in the industry, but do consumers want to be engaged?

Electric Light & Power reached out to residential utility customers across the nation to see what they know about their electricity provider and electricity usage. We asked them how much contact they want with their provider and what services, other than electricity, they would like. This non-scientific survey revealed that they aren't too interested in regular dialog with their utilities, but they all agree they would like updated information about power outages through email text and social media. It was interesting to learn that the only co-op customer on the panel had more contact with his electricity provider than most other panelists and seemed to be the happiest with his service. The survey also revealed that not everyone is interested in saving money on their electricity usage if they are required to change their behavior or put out more effort.

Roundtable participants are: Juan and Cherise Brown, who live in Wichita, Kan., and receive electricity from Westar Energy; Tim and Donna Glenn, who are serviced by electric cooperative CoServ at their home in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis; Claire Huntley, who lives in the Northeast and is a Green Mountain Power customer; Marilyn and Murray Jones who receive electricity to their Florida home from Gulf Power; Andy Keller, the only participant with electricity provider choice, who also lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis and receives electricity from Amigo Energy; Ken Kincheloe of California and a Southern California Edison customer; and, Marissa Merritt of Oklahoma City, who receives electricity from OG&E. (see Figure 1)

ELP: Can you choose your electricity provider? If so, do you like to have the choice or would you prefer to go back to only one provider (no choice)?
Brown
: Currently in our area we do not have a choice in providers for electricity.
Glenn: No. In our subdivision, our power lines are provided by a power co-op (CoServ) so we don't have the option to choose alternate providers.
Huntley: We do not choose our electricity provider.
Jones: We cannot choose our electricity provider. I prefer to have a choice, though, as I believe competition brings lower prices and possibly more programs.
Keller: Yes. I prefer to have a choice in my power provider.
Kincheloe: No, we cannot choose.
Merritt: No, there is only one electricity provider for my area in Oklahoma City.

ELP: Besides receiving and paying your electric bill, do you have other contact with your electricity provider during an average month?
Brown
: No.
Glenn: Our provider provides us a subscription to a monthly magazine that is published for all Texas co-op members. It is an enjoyable read and contributes towards our favorable opinion of our provider. Typically within each issue, is a section devoted to specific info for CoServ members.
Huntley: No.
Jones: We do not normally have contact with our provider in an average month.
Keller: No.
Kincheloe: Not really – except if we have a problem with our bill.
Merritt: Yes, during the summer months, my electricity provider sends a weekly e-mail with my usage amount for the past week.

ELP: Would you like to communicate more with your electricity provider? If so, through what platforms and for what purpose?
Brown
: I would like the option of communicating via text or email during power outages. I believe a mass text during outage periods would be a great option for customers to eliminate long wait times via phone during outages.
Glenn: We would be open to the idea of receiving outage alerts or shortage warnings via text. Other than that, we wouldn't want to receive additional "spam" from our provider.
Huntley: I would like information about outage notifications, reasons, when estimated to restore, etc.
Jones: I really do not need to communicate with my provider. When I need to contact them, I usually use voicemail. The main reason I would need to contact them is for power outage or questions about my bill.
Keller: Yes I feel more communication would be beneficial. I would prefer communication through social media, text and email. This would be very useful to get information about outages, restoration times and risk of power shortages. The system some providers have now is not very efficient to get out information. If there is an outage, you have to call to get information and wait on hold to get outage and restoration information.
Kincheloe: Maybe, email outage notifications and energy usage.
Merritt: Yes, high energy use and outage notification/restoration through a text or e-mail would be beneficial.

ELP: Do you know what a kWh is? Do you know what your utility charges you per kWh?
Brown
: I am not familiar with kWh.
Glenn: I only know that it is the unit of measurement for our power usage. Without doing the math, I couldn't tell you what our utility charges per kWh since it isn't clearly broken out on the bill. Since we don't have a choice in providers, perhaps they feel it really isn't important. However, I did look it up on their web site and found the following:

Huntley: Yes; no.
Jones: I do know what kWh is. I am sending the charges for my last bill:

Keller: Yes kWh is kilowatt hour. Currently I am charged $0.095 per kWh.
Kincheloe: Yes; no.
Merritt: No; no

ELP: Does your electricity provider offer time-of-use or variable rates?
Brown
: They do offer fixed rates; however, we do not utilize this service. We pay per usage.
Glenn: Not that I am aware of. However, looking at the rate schedule from the Website it seems to be variable based on the time of year.
Huntley: No.
Jones: They do offer time of use and variable rates.
Keller: Yes my current provider offers variable rates if you do not have a contract.
Kincheloe: Yes.
Merritt: Not sure.

ELP: Does your electricity provider offer energy efficiency programs?
Brown
: I am not aware of any programs.
Glenn: Yes, they have a program where they will come to your home and perform an energy audit and provide recommendations for improvement. If you have the follow-up work done, they offer rebates. However, we haven't taken advantage of the program.
Huntley: Yes.
Jones: They do offer energy efficiency programs.
Keller: None that I am aware of.
Kicheloe: Yes.
Merritt: During the summer months, my electricity provider offers a "SmartHours" program that consists of a free thermostat installation and usage information.

ELP: Are you interested in knowing more about your electricity usage so that you can reduce your consumption?
Brown
: Yes, naturally we would be interested in learning more to save money.
Glenn: Yes, primarily to save money.
Huntley: I most likely wouldn't, as we already are aware of conservation.
Jones: No, we aren't interested in these programs. The main reason is that at our age, the simplest way to go is what we do. It is just too difficult to keep track of things. It would mean that we would have a longer to do list.
Keller: Yes, to save money and to reduce strain on the grid.
Kicheloe: Yes, save money and cut unnecessary usage.
Merritt: Yes, to save money.

ELP: Are you content with your electricity provider and the services it offers? What else would you like it to offer?
Brown
: As I mentioned above, I would like to see more options to communicate during power outages. I would also like to see more than one provider option. Without options for consumers, prices are generally higher because there is no competition. Westar just announced another price increase this year and we don't have any other option, we have to accept it.
Glenn: Yes, they have been very reliable and the power rarely goes off. In our previous home in Arlington with a different provider, power outages were a common occurrence with some lasting multiple days. In fact, if we were to move again the electricity provider would be a consideration in choosing a neighborhood. We would want it to be served by our current provider, CoServ.
Huntley: Yes, I think we are content; no problems at the moment.
Jones: We are content with what we have at our age.
Keller: I am content with my current provider.
Kicheloe: Yes and no; cheaper rates.
Merritt: Yes, I am content.

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