Utilities are moving quickly to secure a relationship with their customers before those customers develop a keen interest in alternatives to centralized power, perhaps aided by third parties. Utilities can lead change or fight it. In fact, they're doing both.
The "customer experience" is a two-way street in more ways than one. And creating a compelling customer experience has become a horse race of sorts. I'll explain.
Enlightened utilities often engage in listening to understand their customers, their level of knowledge and interest in knowing more, participating more, managing more—all in order to make the utility-customer, supply-load relationship more dynamic and responsive. The results reflect that utilities can be adept at meeting the expectations of a savvy customer base that increasingly demands more from an industry that has done its job so well that few understand what's behind flicking a light switch.
That said, and American ingenuity being what it is, the amount of energy and money being expended on alternatives to centralized power also means that utilities increasingly will deal with customers who seek new terms for that utility-customer relationship. From rooftop solar power generation with net metering to military bases, hospitals and universities seeking microgrids to commercial and industrial efforts at distributed generation to communities pursuing municipalization, many customers increasingly seek independence from the centralized power model.
In that sense, the "customer experience" might also be viewed as the utility experiencing the customer—and not just those customers seeking to improve the relationship, but those seeking to leverage it to their own advantage.
We've run a number of columns that treat both concepts. So as various parties in the centralized power industry meet in Fort Worth this week at the AGA/IEE Customer Service Conference, it's good to see a few new-ish ideas front and center on the agenda, in addition to the nuts-and-bolts issues. (Full disclosure: Energy Central is a co-sponsor of the event.)
"The business landscape for utilities is shifting rapidly," according to a teaser for today's opening general session. "Whether it's price pressure, the need to develop new revenue sources, managing growing customer expectations or threats of disintermediation, now is the time to create customer relationships that are partnership-focused."
Another general session is devoted to the notion of customers as "co-creators of value" in a relationship that is "proactive, mutually beneficial and collaborative."
A third general session captures some of the urgency around this new utility pursuit in its title, "The Customer is Already Smart—And Getting Smarter!" The abstract notes that digital communications in general and industry rumblings about "smart grid" in particular have raised expectations, lofty ones that need to be met.
The notion that "click to chat" might more flexibly respond to customer queries, reduce customer effort in obtaining answers and reduce call volumes to the utility is explored in another session with Reliant. A session titled "Customers Are In Charge of the Relationship" promises to offer insights into Duke Energy's "Youtility" customer engagement program. Outage communication that leverages the mobile Web is on offer from Northeast Utilities.
In summary, the stodgy old power industry appears to be making some adroit moves to catch up with its customer base after a century of extending electricity to all corners of the country and doing such a good job of delivering it at low cost that no one cared about the relationship until now. Sure, utility customer service folks will say that these efforts have been ongoing for some time and there's some truth to that perspective. But the topics at this week's AGA/IEE customer service conference certainly reflect an urgency that only a couple years ago seemed to be missing. In the urgency category, it appears that a horse race of sorts is on, with utilities racing to embrace their customers just as those customers and third parties are busy two-timing with alternatives. What a fascinating picture.
Below I've simply appended links to several of our most recent customer-related columns for your convenience.
If engaging and informing your customers is important to you, you might profit from reading "Ameren Missouri: From CSR to 'Energy Advisor .'" Another column in this vein—"Biggest Energy Saver: Lessons in Consumer Engagement "—documented that giving away large, expensive things such as electric vehicles and smart appliances has a way of capturing customers' imaginations.
If you're looking to expand your knowledge of one of the avenues leading to "disintermediation," then you might enjoy "Connecticut: In Search of Microgrids." 
Two utilities with experience in aligning their businesses and organizations with customer interests told their story at last month's EnergyBiz Leadership Forum and in the column, "SMUD, CenterPoint: From Data to Customer Interests ."
Lastly, for today, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative has been providing a steady stream of insights into that rare breed, the customer, as discussed in "Fact: Utility Customers Care About More Than Cost ."
Intelligent Utility Daily