Visitors entering the Salt River Project headquarters lobby in Phoenix are greeted by a series of display cases. Some are dedicated to telling the history of native settlers to the area. Another shows a pictorial history of the utility. A third case is stacked full of awards recognizing SRP for excellence in customer service.
The correlation between the utility’s history and its focus on customer service is not coincidence. SRP was created in 1903 by local landowners who used their land as collateral to build an irrigation and hydro-electric infrastructure with the Roosevelt Dam to serve farms and communities in the area. That project helped drive the settlement of central Arizona, and the utility grew with the community to become the third largest public power utility in America with just over 1 million customers.
“Our roots are serving the people who created us. That mentality is who we were then, and it’s still who we are today. In the 1990s, we recrafted our vision for customer service with the goal of making the customer experience rewarding, easy and pleasant. Those three words drive what we do,” said Michael Mendonca, Senior Director of Revenue Cycle Services at SRP.
That vision shaped the utility’s experience with prepay electric service. What started as a pilot of 100 customers in the 1990s to help them save money and energy quickly grew into the largest prepay program in the country.
“The satisfaction from that initial pilot was so high we knew we had to keep it going,” Mendonca says. “In fact, one third of our prepay customers joined the program because it was recommended by someone else.”
Today more than 150,000 customers—or 17 percent of SRP’s residential customers—use a meter-driven prepay system from Landis+Gyr to monitor, manage and pay for electricity.
The utility is in the process of replacing their legacy prepay system with a next-generation system that provides two-way communication with the utility through the AMI network, but still retains all of the billing logic in the meter. Customers are equipped with a user display terminal that provides real-time access to usage, costs of power and their account balance.
Next-generation prepay offers more payment options for customers, including online, as well as existing PayCenter kiosks. Connection to the AMI network also enables SRP to provide more services and billing options, such as time-of-use rates, that were unavailable to prepay customers in the past.
According to Adam Peterson, the director of Customer Billing and Accounting at SRP, prepay has become the utility’s leading efficiency program.
“The level of engagement makes prepay customers unique. Typical prepay customers experience a 12 percent reduction in energy use. And that added efficiency helps us to shape our load and meet our requirements throughout the day,” Peterson says.
Customers who are more engaged in energy management tend to be more active users of utility-provided information tools. SRP offers an online “My Account” portal that provides customers with hourly usage data, as well as sending subscription-based E-notifications. The E-notes are sent by either text or email, and range from estimates of bills to outage and restoration information. SRP sends about 1.5 million E-notes per month.
“Customer needs are shifting, and as a result customer service is more important than it was. Customers are asking for more information and wanting to know what that information means,” Mendonca says.
Much like it did 20 years ago, SRP is increasing its customer focus at the same time it addresses grid modernization challenges. The utility is implementing grid analytics to further utilize AMI data to improve reliability and better manage distributed energy resources. SRP is also piloting a load control program for low-income customers that offers programmable communicating thermostats to help this segment manage air conditioning more efficiently.
“Customer satisfaction comes from a place where you are engaging the customer and offering them options and benefits. We’re seeing the role of technology in engaging with the customer. Prepay is a great case example, but it goes beyond prepay into other areas where once you build that rapport with customers, you’re always able to keep it,” Peterson says.
The evolving energy landscape—from the expanding uses for electric power to the rise of distributed energy—is leading to new ideas about what it means to be a utility in the 21st Century. At SRP, those ideas begin and end with the customer experience.
“We need to be more than a power provider, and we need to be more than a trusted energy advisor, which we have been in the past,” Mendonca says. “We need to be a solutions provider.”