The Smart Grid Needs. . . Good Ol' Fashioned Call Centers?

“Thank you for calling, how may I help you?” Can that voice help solve the smart meter backlash problem that’s cropped up in a couple cities in the U.S. over unexpected higher bills?

On a panel I moderated last night for the Churchill Club on the smart grid, Elisabeth Brinton, Chief Business & Public Affairs Officer for Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) said that SMUD has been investing significantly in phone customer service so that customers don’t wait more than 10 seconds before they reach a representative. As a result Brinton said that SMUD had seen no customer complaints for the smart meters it has so far installed.

SMUD has installed its first 50,000 meters and plans to start rolling out smart meters to all homes and businesses in the middle of this year. The utility, which is one of the most progressive in the nation, won a $127.5 million stimulus grant to install 600,000 smart meters, and 50,000 demand response controls, as well as dynamic pricing, and electric vehicle charging.

There’s no doubt that utilities need to invest a lot more heavily in education, marketing, customer service and PR for their consumer-facing smart grid projects (see Making Smart Meters the Must-Have Gadget of the Year, GigaOM Pro, subscription required). (Note to consultants: big business opportunity.) The lawsuits in Bakersfield and Dallas might be isolated incidents but are indications of the greater problem.

As several of the panelists at the Churchill event put it last night, the value of smart meters to consumers — that if they manage their energy consumption they can save money — hasn’t been articulated very well and not enough tools are being provided to help them out. Smart meters by themselves won’t necessarily save the customer money — and in some cases could increase the bill if combined with variable pricing that charges the customer more during peak times. The Victorian government in Australia called for a moratorium on variable pricing until it had figured out how the pricing would effect the customers who might not be able to change their energy consumption as easily (elderly, unemployed).

Will good phone customer service be the answer? Well, it’ll certainly help. Anything that creates a dialogue where the utility reps can directly answer questions and soothe the fears of increased bills will be good for the smart grid rollout. And it could deliver that next step, as Foundation Capital investor Steve Vassallo put it on the panel last night, where utilities stop acting like their customers are “ratepayers” and start acting like their customers are customers.

Image courtesy of lamont_cranston’s photostream


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