Why are people stopping by a utility's payment office?

"When I joined Southern [Company] it was, I guess you could say, urban myth, or urban legend, that the payment offices—especially in the small towns in the areas that we serve—people came to socialize, they went to see their neighbor, catch up on the local gossip of the day, because that's what you do in a small town, apparently," said Lincoln Wood, project manager at Southern Company.

Then they did some research.

"It was really surprising when we found out why people come to the payment office. And it will probably come as a shock to everyone in the room to discover they came to pay their bills. And that was really about it," Wood told the recent Smart Electric Power Association's Grid Evolution Summit in Washington.

At a session on "What's Next in Consumer Choice?" Wood said this led to an epiphany of sorts. Southern Company made it simpler to pay.

"You can go to Walmart or Dollar General and scan a barcode that's on your bill and make a payment there," said Wood. "We've also worked very, very hard to make our digital channels as easy as possible to do business with us."

It's also important to mine data to make sure you know the people you serve, as National Grid discovered when it rolled out a smart grid pilot program in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"We had a store where customers could walk in and tell us how their experience was. And one of the things we learned is we had a huge Vietnamese community in the city," said Carlos Nouel, vice president of new energy solutions at National Grid.

That came as a surprise. But when the utility later looked at census data, it discovered "fully half of the city is Vietnamese, and that's the only language they speak," said Nouel. Trouble was, materials were only being translated into Spanish.

Every utility has consumers who fall behind on their bills. At Pepco Holdings "we implemented an outbound call campaign" to customers in arrears, said Evalene Wright, senior community relations specialist. The utility had a contact center call those customers—not to dun them, but to help.

"They would provide the customers with the energy assistance that they would more likely qualify for," said Wright. Consumers would be transferred to the right place to get help or would be given the correct number to call at a more convenient time.

The call center also had a list of the utility's upcoming outreach events, and customers would be advised not just where and when to go, but also the documentation to bring.