TODAY’S STUDY: BRINGING UTILITIES AND CUSTOMERS TOGETHER
Improving Customer Experience and Efficiency Program Outcomes
Megan Billingsley, Chris Stratton, Emily Martin Fadrhonc January 2016 (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)
Many comprehensive home energy upgrade programs have found that, to convert a high percentage of inquiries into completed upgrades, homeowners need more than just financial incentives. To provide additional support, streamline the home upgrade process, and increase the number, depth, and breadth of energy-saving measures installed, several home energy upgrade programs offer energy advisor services to guide the customer through the home energy upgrade process. These services range from intensive coordination with homeowners to answering questions as needed. In the most involved cases, the energy advisor might provide a full suite of services, including scheduling the initial energy assessment, completing a walkthrough of the home, directly installing simple energy-saving measures, reviewing contractor bids, and performing quality assurance tests after the upgrade has been completed.
Providing these services offers an opportunity to gain homeowners’ trust, build program credibility, and more actively encourage participants to complete recommended upgrades. These benefits are tempered by the cost of offering advisors’ services. While many of the programs highlighted in this program brief are fairly new, the services provided by energy advisors have already played an important role in facilitating comprehensive home energy upgrades.
Helping Homeowners Overcome Obstacles to Energy Efficiency
Homeowners face multiple barriers that can significantly hinder completion of a home energy upgrade. The benefits of lower energy bills, increased comfort, and a healthier indoor environment can be overshadowed by the upfront costs, uncertainty about who to trust with the project, and life’s other priorities. Factor in concerns about the time required to understand and manage an upgrade project, and these obstacles often prevail. Barriers can be broadly categorized as informational (e.g., homeowners are not familiar with the concept of home energy upgrades, the benefits of an upgrade, or how to participate in the program), decision-making (e.g., uncertainty about how to select a contractor or understand a contractor’s scope of work), and transactional (e.g., selecting and scheduling a contractor, filling out program paperwork).
To help homeowners overcome these challenges, some energy efficiency program administrators have created an energy advisor (EA), or energy coach, role to guide homeowners through the upgrade process. The EA’s primary function is to streamline the upgrade experience for homeowners. EAs are commonly available to answer homeowners’ questions over the phone or in person, review contractor bids, and ensure the quality of work performed. Additionally, some EAs provide outreach service, becoming the face of energy efficiency in the areas they serve and attending community events to present an overview of the home upgrade process and recruit participants. Some programs have also used the EA position to generate leads, provide quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) on completed work, and develop relationships with the local contractor workforce. Table 1 summarizes common barriers that can impede home upgrade activity and effective strategies that programs employing EAs have utilized to overcome them.
The level of service provided by an EA varies depending on factors such as program goals and budget, locally identified barriers, and the characteristics of the existing contractor pool. Every program discussed here carefully weighed their local circumstances as they designed the EA role, and the unique set of services offered by the EA reflects the programs’ goals and constraints.
This program brief summarizes the experiences of six residential energy efficiency programs that incorporated EAs, surveys the services that EAs provided and the barriers they sought to overcome, and offers best practice guidance on how a program might incorporate EA services.
Profiles of Home Upgrade Programs Using Energy Advisor Services
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Neighborhood Program (BBNP) charged state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and utilities with testing innovative approaches to boost energy efficiency adoption. Many programs leveraged existing utility rebate programs and, depending on the needs of the community and the program’s goals, some added additional services. Some programs created new marketing and outreach strategies to engage homeowners, while others offered additional rebates, financing options, and workforce development programs to support contractors.1 Some BBNP programs added EA services to help homeowners navigate the upgrade process to improve assessment-to-upgrade conversion rates.
Table 2 summarizes the EA services offered by six such programs and presents performance metrics and a characterization of the communities served.2 In reviewing these metrics, note that the EA is one component of a larger program design. While all program managers interviewed consider EA services critical to their program’s success, a number of other factors can impact program effectiveness.
Each of the profiled programs developed the EA position to meet their specific needs and goals; however, two commonalities emerge:
• All EAs worked with homeowners to review their home energy assessment reports, and
• Almost all EAs reviewed the final scope of work prior to completion of the upgrade.
Other services—including assisting homeowners with scheduling assessments and upgrades, selecting contractors, conducting QA/QC of completed projects, and providing outreach at public events—varied by program needs.
The program metrics in Table 2 include the number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) staff in the EA role and the total program staff, as well as the average number of hours an EA spent on each completed upgrade. These metrics are a proxy for the size of the program and the magnitude of the EA role in the overall program design. The six programs invested in a wide range of EA hours per upgrade completed, from five to twentyperson-hours on average. This metric is affected by multiple factors, including the community’s receptiveness to home energy upgrades, local government policies, and the services offered by the EA. Note that programs with larger grant awards (i.e., Enhabit3 and EnergySmart) had lower average EA person-hours per upgrade, nine hours and five hours respectively, suggesting that there may be economies of scale.
Using Energy Advisor Services to Overcome Barriers
The final evaluation of BBNP found that programs which provided multiple assessment pathways and did some direct installation of measures were typically more successful at completing upgrades.5 While the presence of the EA position itself did not necessarily stand out, the programs that offered the services provided by EAs were typically very successful. Given that these services were particularly influential with customers, it is worth examining the specific services the EA provides relative to the barriers these services are designed to overcome…Overcoming Informational Barriers…Program Orientation…Conduct Energy Assessments…Overcoming Decision-Making Barriers…Select a Contractor…Review Assessment Results…Explain Financing Options…
Key Issues When Considering Energy Advisors
These six programs have found EA services to be a highly effective way to overcome some of the more intractable barriers in the home energy upgrade process. When considering which EA services to offer, program administrators must determine:
• Which barriers are most problematic in their community?
• What subset of these barriers does the program plan to address with EA services?
The following tips for success can help program administrators use energy advising services strategically. Program budgets, community characteristics, and other local conditions are important issues to take into account.
Define Responsibilities and Necessary Skills and Hire Accordingly
EAs often perform a range of tasks, and they must have a flexible skillset. Technical knowledge is critical, but customer service and a personable nature can be equally important. Some programs have stated that hiring for personality and a customer service mindset was even more important, as technical knowledge can be taught. Common backgrounds for EAs include teaching, building science, design, sales, environmental studies, social services, and the building trades. Some programs require professional technical credentials from regional or national trade agencies such as the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) or the Building Performance Institute (BPI). Programs considering an EA role should have a clear sense of what duties their EA will perform and what skills are most important to those duties.
Invest in Well-Defined Contractor-EA Relationships
All six programs observed that the upgrade process is smoother when contractors and EAs have a consistent understanding of the division of roles and responsibilities. A clearly defined relationship also limits customer confusion during the upgrade process. Furthermore, when all parties present consistent, coordinated information, customers’ trust in both the contractors and the program is significantly increased.
Developing working relationships between contractors and EAs also saves time during the upgrade process. For example, EAs with the HEAT Squad were initially heavily engaged as intermediaries between customers and contractors. As the demand for upgrades increased, the program found that developing relationships with, and even providing sales training for, contractors helped them improve their business practices and customer relations. The need for EAs to intervene in the upgrade process lessened as the contractor community developed their capacity. Setting clear expectations for scopes of work, bids, and test-out performance levels can also save time and hassle for all parties involved, particularly homeowners.
Minimize EA Activities that Do Not Translate into Upgrades
For every program, the person-hours per upgrade was high initially and decreased over time as the program matured. Each program sought to balance quality and homeowner satisfaction with using the program’s labor and financial resources efficiently. All six programs found this balance through a continuous improvement approach. As data accumulated and programs gained experience, program administrators cut back on activities that did not make an upgrade more likely, such as unlimited phone consultations and multiple home visits. To address these time sinks and limit customer demands on advising staff, programs created additional tools that directly or indirectly provided the help that homeowners needed.
• Invest in Effective Websites. Many programs emphasize the importance of investing in an effective website early because of its time-saving potential. Homeowners can use a well-designed website to:
o Educate themselves about the upgrade process and about the program and its services, lessening the reliance on advisors for education.
o Determine if they are eligible for the program services, allowing the advisors to focus on those most likely to undergo an upgrade.
o Sign up for the program, which can generate a record in the program’s tracking and customer management database and trigger a follow-up by an EA.
Enhabit reduced the marketing, education, and outreach burden on their EAs by building an accessible, engaging website that enables homeowners to determine their own eligibility for the program, learn about the upgrade process, and run a simple asset rating tool that estimates their home’s savings potential. The program also reduced the time EAs spend monitoring projects by assigning all upgrades associated with one contractor to the same EA. This allowed the EA and contractor to discuss multiple projects during each correspondence and develop a more consistent and personal relationship.
• Document Frequently Asked Questions to Minimize Bottle Necks. Energize Bedford’s approach of promoting a single, prominent, expert energy coach came with a down side: homeowners participating in the program were hesitant to have any work done on their home without first consulting the energy coach. This demanded significant EA time and often unnecessarily slowed down the upgrade process. To reduce these consultations, the Energize Bedford’s EA created a series of short, publicly-available videos addressing common questions. To further manage time spent on individual customer consultations, Energize Bedford and other programs instituted weekly office hours when homeowners can ask for advice. This structure gave the homeowner access to the EA while putting reasonable and clear constraints on that access.
Use Data to your Advantage
Customer relationship management software can help EAs track the progress of upgrades and review past correspondence with homeowners and contractors. By consolidating this information into one database, program staff can identify inefficiencies and areas for process improvement. Before they had developed their excel-based tracking system, STEP cited the absence of a systematized customer database as one of the program’s biggest stumbling blocks. Good information and customer management systems are critical to ensure that EAs can manage upgrades efficiently and effectively.
Key Takeaways: Incorporating EA Services into Your Program
All six programs cited their EA services as a key factor in the program’s success; however, an EA position can also increase the costs of program delivery. Before launching the EA role, a number of considerations need to be determined, such as how the EA will interact with contractors and whether there are sufficient information technology resources in place (e.g., FAQ section of program website, customer tracking system) to enable the success of these services. These costs and considerations should be weighed against your specific program’s situation and target population.
When incorporating energy advisor services into your program design, ensure that you:
1) Understand the market barriers for your program.
2) Identify the barriers the EA position and services will be used to overcome.
3) Define the role and specific responsibilities of the EA position relative to other program staff, contractors, and any program partners. Integrate the EA position into the overall program design.
4) Continually examine, evaluate, and adapt the role as your program and the market grow, and change over time.
The six profiled programs used EAs to provide services that address specific barriers hindering completion of home energy upgrades. The barriers include informational barriers, decision-making barriers, and transactional barriers. While an EA is only one component that influences program outcomes, all six programs cited the EAs as a critical component to their program’s success.