Over the past year, which has been filled with unprecedented challenges for consumers, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) has continued to research what consumers want from energy and how industry stakeholders can better serve them.
We conducted over 30 on-camera interviews with consumers (virtually, of course) to hear in their own words what they think about energy efficiency, COVID-19, smart home technology and other topics. We produced groundbreaking quantitative research on what consumers from electrification, one of the next major trends in the energy industry, and we surveyed 1,000 Americans with annual incomes under $50,000.
From these sources, along with two of SECC’s white papers from 2020 on lower-income consumers and beneficial electrification, respectively, we produced the “2021 State of the Consumer” report, a meta-analysis that offers a big-picture look at the needs and wants of residential energy consumers today and provides recommendations for improving customer engagement and assistance.
In this blog, we’ll look at three of the six major themes on consumers from the new report:
1. Consumers are making the connection between smart energy and slowing climate change.
More so than in previous editions of the “State of the Consumer” report, we noticed a strong current of environmental concern from consumers in the research that we conducted in 2020. In the “Beneficial Electrification: The Voice of the Consumer” report, the statement “Electricity is becoming cleaner and more renewable every day” resonated most strongly with consumers when asked what would motivate them to switch to all-electric technologies – even when compared with statements related to saving money on bills.
In SECC’s study of lower-income consumers, the Environmentally Driven emerged as a distinct consumer persona, with 44 percent of them stating that they always think about the environmental benefits of energy efficiency and that their concern for future generations drives this commitment. Only 42 percent of them believe they are already doing enough to protect the environment, which suggests these consumers might participate more in energy efficiency and conservation efforts if they were more aware of programs offered by their providers.
Consumers are motivated by environmental concern when it comes to their actions and interests around energy, and providers and other stakeholders will find many willing participants if programs, services and technologies are offered in ways that are accessible and beneficial to consumers.
2. Consumers need more education on how to assess a program or technology.
While many consumers appear interested in engaging in renewable energy or energy efficiency programs for the environmental reasons noted above and financial reasons, which is often the top motivator driving consumer behavior, consumers still report difficult in knowing whether programs or technologies will actually benefit them.
In the video interviews for the “Modern Customer Engagement Journey” research, consumers said that they were largely satisfied with the smart energy products that they own, but they still aren’t sure whether their devices and appliances are actually making a difference on their energy bills. To encourage program participation and improve customer satisfaction, stakeholders can provide consumers with tools to support their decision-making process or gauge whether a product or program is delivering on the expectation that it will save them energy and money.
Rate plan analyses, shadow billing and bill impact estimates can help consumers quantify savings. However, consumers also say that they want these tools to be personalized to them and that they’re willing to share their usage data if it means better understanding the benefits to them. Among lower-income consumers, 69 percent definitely would or would consider sharing their data in exchange for personalized information on how to save money.
3. Consumers are looking to their providers for support as they deal with the impact of COVID-19.
Finally, SECC’s research on low- and moderate-income consumers shows that consumers are paying close attention to the actions that their electricity providers are taking to mitigate the widespread economic impact of the COVD-19 pandemic.
For lower-income consumers particularly, the pandemic has added to the economic burdens these consumers already face, including amplifying their concerns over being able to afford their utility bills. In our survey of these consumers, utility expenses were among the top-three household expenses lower-income consumers worried about paying due to the economic fallout from COVID-19 (behind food and health care/health insurance).
However, this research also showed that providers can do more to support consumers during the pandemic – even as signs increasingly point to recovery. When lower-income consumers were asked about their satisfaction with their electricity provider overall, about 90 percent or more said they were satisfied before COVID-19.
When consumers were asked specifically about their provider’s response (e.g., bill flexibility, communications, payment programs, disconnection moratoria), the reviews were decidedly less positive. For all of the lower-income personas, satisfaction with their providers’ COVID-19 response hovered around 70 percent, with the two low-income personas’ satisfaction being less than the moderate-income personas. Going the extra mile for all customers now can help providers make great strides toward earning their trust, laying the foundation for stronger relationships and greater engagement over time.
The past year has added even more complexity to an already rapidly changing energy industry, and it’s more important than ever that providers and other industry stakeholders listen to what consumers need and want and help them derive value from smart energy – in whatever ways are most meaningful to them as individuals.
To learn more about SECC’s six themes on energy consumers for 2021, download the “2021 State of the Consumer” report here.