Nobody Cares About Our Programs

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I am a recovering energy efficiency program manager.

It is important that I lead with this statement because today I am going to share a secret that an industry full of energy efficiency program managers, designers, and implementers continue to ignore. And that is, nobody cares about our programs.

“I’m looking for a program!” (Have you ever actually heard this?)

The nature of our regulatory and funding constructs has led us to develop, design, and implement efficiency efforts that follow a programmatic structure. So we box our utility energy efficiency world into programs. We create logos, brands, and strategies. We build teams to deliver said programs. We file annual plans, budgets, and reports. We assess and evaluate said programs.

But in all my years in this space, I have never had a customer call me and say, “I am looking for a program.”

Instead what they say is:
“I have an old house and the floor feels drafty.”
“My washer is starting to sound like a 1957 Studebaker. Do you offer rebates for a new one?”
“My electric bills are much higher than my neighbors. What can I do?”

So why do we keep focusing our outward communications on programs when never is a customer asking for a “program?”

“What’s in it for me?”

While we love our programs, I think we need to face the truth: Nobody else cares about them. At least, not in the way that we think of them. Sure, they may care about the benefit, but it’s that—the benefit—they are interested in.

I will take this one step farther. Not only do people not care, but our program models often inhibit participation more than they encourage it. They force customers to navigate multiple applications, contractors and varying participation requirements. They also make customers interpret the alternate language of energy efficiency to figure out which program provides the solution to their problem. (Is there a Google translator for, “Visit our online analyzer and determine what measures to install to reduce your kWh?”)

In not thinking about their perspectives or experiences, we may be missing critical opportunities to engage and educate them. In a world of “time is money,” missing that hook early can mean the difference between customers taking the cheap or easy path, and customers realizing the longer-term benefits of investing in energy efficiency.

At ILLUME, we see this time and time again in our deeper discussions with customers; they need a solution now, they want it to be trustworthy, they want it to be easy, and they want it to be about them.

And it SHOULD be about them!

Truth be told, we message and package energy efficiency in a way that meets our needs, but not in a way that meets our customers’ needs. Let’s go back to what is really the crux of the questions I noted above:

  • How can I make my house more comfortable?
  • What is the best choice for me when replacing an old appliance?
  • How can you help me save money?

When our customers are asking these questions, they are not looking for a program. They’re looking for a solution. They don’t care if the savings credit goes to the products team or the existing homes team. What they do care about is being able to easily navigate options so they can get to the right solution for their problem. And instead of making this as easy as possible for them, we typically make it more difficult than necessary.

Does this sound familiar?

“If you need insulation, go to the existing homes program.”
“If you need a thermostat, go to the products program.”
“If you need a furnace, go to the HVAC program!”
“If you need lighting, figure out if there is a rebate at a local retailer …”
“Oh wait, that now changed. Go to the existing homes program! It’s new!”

This is not a solution-oriented approach—rather, it’s a quest we send our customers on. And yet we wonder why we suffer lack of ongoing engagement. We wonder why it is so hard to get customers to take multiple actions overtime, or why more customers are not taking advantage of our amazing programs.

I understand the business side of this equation. We design programs to accommodate management, reporting, and regulatory structures. But we also need to be thinking in terms of solutions that accommodate customers’ needs. We should be offering tools and support that can help customers identify the products and services that will solve their issues and provide a single, easy path for them to take action. This does not mean throwing out the internal team structures we’ve built to focus on certain technologies. It doesn’t mean we can’t still produce regulatory filings with program-specific goals. What it does mean is that we need to rethink how we package and present what we have to offer our customers.

This talk of solutions isn’t new. There are a few leaders in the utility space starting to actively think about how to support customers over their energy life, looking at ways to let customers identify their needs, and then developing a “package” for them that feels customized.

That said, we have a long way to go. And getting there will mean making requests for proposals customer-centric rather than program- or widget-centric, and holding conferences on customer solutions rather than technologies or buildings. It will mean driving design from the customer perspective, rather than an industry one.

As utilities look at ways to remain relevant and competitive in a rapidly changing market, it’s time to take a serious look at what we have to offer. Because the truth is … nobody cares about our programs.

Sara Conzemius

Authored by Sara Conzemius

Sara Conzemius is founding advisor and co-owner of ILLUME Advising, experts in behavioral research, program design and implementation in the energy efficiency, conservation, renewable, demand response and smart grid industries. She is an awarded leader in the design and implementation of customer-sided energy programs—specifically program policy and residential market channels—and plays key roles in national conversations that are driving future program design and leading to a more transformed market.

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