Utilities rarely hear from their customers unless there is a power outage or a rate increase; and very often, the only contact customers have with their power providers is that monthly bill. No wonder relations between the two can be chilly. What wonders could occur if the two sides got together to talk about something other than money or an emergency? That was the idea behind Passport to Power, an open house presented by Loveland Water and Power (LWP).
“Passport to Power is part of an ongoing effort LWP is making to connect with the community,” explained Customer Relations Specialist Lindsey Bashline, who came up with the idea for the event. “We are trying to educate our customers about where their electricity comes from, how it gets to them and how they use it. It was also a chance to explain to them what it means to get their power from a municipal utility.”
Lots to do, see
About 200 customers of the northern Colorado power provider showed up at the Loveland Service Center Feb. 26 to learn about electricity generation, use, safety and more. Visitors received a map of 13 activity and exhibit stations and a “passport” to be stamped at each station. At the end of the evening, two completed passports were drawn for door prizes, a choice of a Garden-In-A-Box kit or a home energy audit.
LWP employees hosted interactive equipment and safety demonstrations and educational displays. Serious-minded customers were able to discuss their electricity bills with utility billing representatives. Namaste Solar, a Colorado-based photovoltaic company, and Drive Electric Northern Colorado, a nonprofit group promoting plug-in electric vehicle adoption, set up booths where visitors could explore those technologies. And it wouldn’t have been a party without Glow, the LWP firefly mascot, on hand for pictures with kids and families.
Show, don’t tell
The 13 stations provided visitors with a peek into the daily work of an electric utility. Platte River Power Authority, LWP’s distribution joint action agency, was there to help explain where the city of Loveland gets its power.
A mini-grid with a model substation and transformer introduced customers to the difference between transmission and distribution lines. “It is powered by a 12-volt battery, and you can flip switches to turn lights on and spin wheels,” said Bashline. “It helps to give people an understanding of what is involved in delivering electricity.”
Customers discovered more about their own electricity use from a demonstration that allowed them to connect meters to working appliances to see how much power they were drawing.
Utilities consider any gathering of customers to be a great excuse to talk about safety, and Passport to Power gave guests plenty to talk about. One particularly dramatic demonstration involved what happens to a Barbie doll that comes in direct contact with a live electrical line. A mock power outage was staged to show how LWP’s outage management system deals with the event. At the power pole station, attendees got to use a hot stick to connect a fuse on a mock pole that turned on a streetlight. A few ambitious customers tried their hand at disconnecting and reconnecting a model pad-mounted transformer.
Getting the word out
Bashline is pleased with the turnout for Passport to Power, LWP’s fourth customer open house since the utility started hosting such events in 2013. “We did a Ride and Drive with Drive Electric Northern Colorado, an open house on water infrastructure and one on the drought, but this was our most hands-on event to date,” she said.
No matter how many fun activities and door prizes you plan, you still have to get customers in the door. A combination of traditional publicity, including bill stuffers and direct mail postcards, and social media like Facebook and Twitter seems to do the trick for LWP. “We started using social media about four years ago, but we still do a little of everything to reach all our different customer segments,” stated Bashline.
Facebook seems to reach more residential customers, she observed, and Twitter is more effective for connecting with the industry. LWP has had good success using Facebook’s post-boosting option, a paid, add-on service that guarantees the utility’s Facebook post will appear on followers’ pages, Bashline added.
As Passport to Power proves, however, there is no replacement for meeting customers, listening to their concerns and showing them how their utility works. A municipal utility is more than just a business—it is part of the community, and that means taking the time to get to know your neighbors. “The personal touch will always be the cornerstone of customer relations,” acknowledged Bashline.