The Customer Gets a Vote

There’s a common phrase in military strategy that every industry should adopt if they are selling to people…in other words, everyone. “The enemy gets a vote.” Regardless of how well planned, well executed, and well meaning an operation may be, it can all go pear-shaped if the enemy doesn’t react in the way(s) all the brilliant planning anticipated.

While one should never see the customer as an enemy, the same concept applies in just about any situation where a great idea or an amazing opportunity runs into the wall of consumer expectations or, more commonly, customer ambivalence. How many startups, regardless of industry, can one name that had a truly innovative, amazing idea that died due to bad timing, lack of interest, or a customer pool too small to monetize?

In the realm of energy, especially distributed energy, it’s important to remember that from the customer perspective, electricity has always been extremely simple and thus extremely easy to ignore. There is an amazing opportunity over the next decade to take advantage of new technology and data platforms to shift the electricity sector from a supply-driven model to a load-driven market – a shift that will affect industries across the entire economy, not just energy. But while those of us in the industry can see the numerous possibilities of DER aggregation, transactive energy, peer-to-peer power supply, and realtime power rates, none of them will manifest if they aren’t packaged in a way that provides customers with a sense of direct control without requiring a change in their lifestyle. Rooftop solar makes enormous sense for just about anyone in a position to install it (and often for those that aren’t), but in most cases and in most markets even something as simple as solar is still an educational sale – not because solar is particularly complex but because salespeople are fighting something much more powerful than confusion: complacency.

For an industry that hasn’t changed in 100 years, the power of inertia in engaging customers to perceive and act differently about electricity, in the face of extremely entrenched interests, is a pretty large Sisyphus stone. It will take more than marketing, lead generation, and soaring rhetoric. And most importantly, it will take more than grand ideas and shiny objects as products. As the distributed grid goes beyond solar and starts adding storage and platforms and energy management systems, each new widget may increase the capability of the end user but that doesn’t mean they’ll see the value of any of them in isolation or be willing to invest in each piece as part of a larger system.

If distributed energy is truly going to change how electricity is bought, sold, generated, and consumed, it’s going to have to have to guard against drinking it’s own kool-aid of shiny objects and focus heavily on building an entirely new system that saves homeowners money, decreases their carbon footprint, while staying extremely simple and extremely easy to ignore.

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