Workshop Recap: Walk a Mile in Your Customer’s Shoes

Group discussion

In order to create the best possible experience for customers, utilities must take their perspectives into consideration. Energy efficiency programs are often designed to maximize energy savings and fail to account for the specific needs and preferences of the customers they are targeting. At the Midwest Energy Solutions Conference this past February, attendees had the opportunity to brainstorm ways to best engage their customers by putting themselves in their shoes. “Walk a Mile in Your Customer’s Shoes” encouraged attendees to put aside their program perspectives and think through program design from a customer’s point of view.

To help with this session, MEEA recruited eight subject-matter experts from the industry to represent eight different customer segment types. The customer segment types discussed included single-family homeowners and renters, multifamily residential owners and renters, small business, commercial buildings, industrial buildings and public facilities. Each table represented one of the segments, and provided a document of characteristics about that specific customer persona. These details were meant to guide conversation, with information like income level and typical energy use of the residential customers, and capabilities and energy needs of the non-residential building types.

For the first half of the discussion at each table, attendees were encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of the customer their table represented. Keeping the characteristics of their customer in mind, attendees thought through the following questions:

  • What would it look like if customers were able to design programs for themselves?
  • If we let these customers design their own programs with what would best fit their needs, what changes would we see?
  • What does it take to reach this customer?

The scenarios were then flipped to encourage attendees to think from the utility or implementer perspective. How can existing programs improve to better serve this customer segment? Throughout the duration of the workshop, table leads ensured each group of attendees had robust and thoughtful discourse. Read on for key takeaways from a few of the discussions.

Small Business Customer

Our small business customer is a mom & pop ice cream parlor in a suburban strip mall with freezers running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The original property lease included utilities in the cost of rent, but now the owners must pay for their energy use for the first time. There was concern among the group that there may be a knowledge gap to consider, especially in terms of the functioning of equipment. The business owners may not understand what it means for equipment such as freezers, HVAC and lighting to be running optimally. The group discussed possible programs that were lower-cost. Budget billing was weighed as a means to even out energy costs over the year, since their peak business and usage is during the summer. Some outreach tactics considered included high-touch, face-to-face outreach to establish trust, and providing a “utility welcome packet” with a sample bill and information comparing their usage to that of an average ice cream shop.

Single-Family Renters

Our single-family renters are a lower-income family with three young children in rural Illinois. The couple is technologically savvy and streams television shows and other educational content for their kids. They recently moved from a home with central A/C to their new one, which doesn’t. With summer coming, the kids will be home more often. The group pointed out that since these folks are renters, they will likely shy away from making a large investment into an energy efficient central A/C system. Instead, ENERGY STAR room air conditioners and behavioral changes were the more ideal measure. These customers would also likely prefer an instant rebate over a mail-in option to avoid covering the initial cost upfront. In terms of program modifications, the group suggested utilities increase incentive amounts for better, more efficient products, rather than providing a blanket rebate amount for all ENERGY STAR appliances. Utilities could also consider leveraging schools to provide EE kits for children to bring home, making energy efficiency more of a whole-family decision. Since the family is more tech savvy, the group suggested that the utility include helpful energy saving tips on their website.

Multifamily Residential Owner

This customer is a middle-aged, high-income man living in a high-rise condo in the Chicago loop. His furnace recently broke and needs to be replaced, as it is the middle of winter. The group assumed this customer was probably not very concerned about energy costs until his furnace stopped working. His first inclination to fix the situation would probably be to call building management, who may say that the broken furnace is not their problem since he owns the unit. He would then likely turn to Google, searching “furnace replacement.” Since the customer is a busy man, he probably values a speedy repair or installation over energy efficiency. This discussion focused on ways to “plant the seed” and be proactive in building awareness of energy efficient alternatives before the winter season. Utilities can also benefit from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to provide targeted ads to customers searching “furnace replacement” and similar terms. The group also thought segmented messaging was incredibly important: the utility could effectively pitch energy efficiency to this customer by reminding that the more money saved from an upgrade, the more to invest in the stock market!

Commercial Customer

This customer profile focused on a big-box retail store in a standalone building in urban Minneapolis. The building’s hours of operation are between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., with security and lights constantly. Their corporate headquarters released a new company-wide sustainability program with a goal to reduce emissions by 15%, mandating that all suppliers operate at a higher efficiency. This group thought the store should run a facility audit to understand the building’s current energy use and where the opportunities to save exist. The customer would also speak to the key account manager at their utility, in the hopes that they can provide information on existing energy efficiency programs and incentives being offered. The group suggested utilities offer “bundles” of rebates or extra incentives for commercial companies performing specific upgrades in all their store locations.

Attendees pulled from their experiences on either end of the customer journey and shared unique perspectives to come up with innovative changes to program designs and outreach efforts. One perspective we hope to explore in a similar format in the future is that of multifamily building owners. This workshop was a good reminder to bear in mind the priorities of our target customer and how we can reach and best serve them while accomplishing our own goals, as well.