Chris Oberle

About Chris Oberle

Chris Oberle is a senior vice president in the Energy division, with more than 25 years of executive management experience in the energy and financial services sectors. He manages the development and delivery of syndicated studies, custom research, best practices and advisory services. Throughout his career, Chris has earned a reputation as a customer experience thought leader by helping clients improve the way they develop, deliver, engage and satisfy customers with their programs and brands. Chris earned an MBA from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California. He coaches youth sports and spends time with his kids at USC and UCLA.

How Sustainable Is Your Environmental Brand?

How Sustainable Is Your Environmental Brand?Recently, we announced our 2017 Environmental Champions to highlight the utilities that have developed effective approaches and struck a chord with their customers who like to hear about the dedication of their utility to the environment. These utilities are, in turn, rewarded with high Brand Trust and Customer Satisfaction scores.

2017 Utility Environmental Champions_Residential

The fact is, most utilities utilize environmental dedication as a key brand attribute, but only some utilities’ environmental positionings are effective. The difference between success and ineffectively tying your brand to environmental benefits can be found in fundamental marketing principles. Jerome McCarthy’s classic four P’s of marketing—Product, Price, Place and Promotion—hold true when it comes to effective environmental positioning. Utilizing his principles will allow you to build and maintain an effective and believable environmental brand for your utility.


Product offerings serve as the ultimate proof statement of environmental dedication. Any utility’s plan to position itself as an environmental champion has to start with a product portfolio assessment to gain an understanding of how each offering, or lack of offerings, impacts perceptions of the utility’s environmental dedication.

First, electric utilities that offer renewable energy have a built-in commodity value to environmentally focused customers. In our recent fielding, 78% of customers would prefer their utility use renewables as a fuel source. And natural gas was preferred by 65% of customers, so offering renewable energy also benefits natural gas utilities. Other consumption management offerings can be tied to green offerings and bill savings. Energy audits can be tied to a broad segment of utility customers, as are rate programs that reward customers for their at-home efforts. Offering online carbon footprint calculators is also an easy way to demonstrate interest in a cleaner environment. Finally, solar programs can be marketed to your environmentally focused customer segments. And solar programs aren’t just for electric utilities anymore—natural gas utility holding companies such as New Jersey Natural Gas’s parent company have developed solar offerings to customers in its trading area. This is in direct competition with PSE&G, which serves many of these customers with electricity. PSE&G, in turn, offers a loan program for customers to install solar.

Develop a product plan that inventories your offerings that can be tied to the environment, and enumerate the key features and benefits of those offerings. Also, develop marketing plans for programs you intend to launch in the near future using the same marketing principles.


While any utility’s environmental marketing plan starts with a product portfolio assessment, price is how the utility shows how much it values its dedication. Offering attractive net metering and green rates can be effective in certain markets. Touting a strong and growing renewable energy portfolio as well as natural gas investments to provide affordable clean energy to customers for the foreseeable future has broader appeal. Utilities should leverage the demand for renewable pricing options to gain as much environmental advantage as possible.

Demonstrating your support for the next generation of energy-efficient innovations is a great way to position yourself as a leader in helping customers lower both their carbon footprint and bill amounts. Our energy industry research shows that customers are open to practical, cost-effective environmental solutions. Customers will appreciate these solutions and reward you with higher brand value.

Do you have price programs that help the environment or does your fuel provide a more environmentally friendly alternative (such as natural gas)? Map your price programs and advantages to customer segments with the highest demand.


Most utilities’ customer base is broad but their resources to reach it are limited. So where you concentrate your efforts is key to your success. It is important to thoroughly understand your customer base so you can effectively target your efforts to your most environmentally focused customer segment. Likewise, it’s essential to track the effectiveness of your efforts by circling back with quality market research. Have your customers heard about or do they appreciate your environmental programs? The following chart shows that utility environmental understanding and support varies greatly by customer segment.

Your customer base is unlike any other utility’s. Every utility must take ownership of what its customers want from it and define its environmental role in the communities it serves.


None of your environmental strategies can bear fruit if you don’t promote them properly. Customers won’t give you credit for what they don’t know about you.

You need to know which channels are most likely to reach which customers, then target your message mix to key customer segments: home energy audits might resonate most effectively with new homeowners, time-based rate programs could be more attractive to those on fixed incomes, and solar programs and renewable investments could score big points with your greenest customers.

But utilities should think beyond what they traditionally view as products when designing their environmental offerings. In fact, the cause customers think their utility should support over all others is “clean environment.” Therefore, increasing awareness of your environmental programs and local support is crucial.

Many utilities have generated environmental goodwill by showcasing their stewardship programs. These efforts can be improving natural landscapes, supporting like-minded local environment organizations such as those dedicated to keeping local roadsides and parks clean, or focusing on clean fuels. And these efforts score points with a swath of customers.

Also, since we are talking marketing, branding environmental programs and adding promotional incentives to purchase can be very effective. For instance, SMUD offers Greenergy®, a branded program that allows its customers to add up to $6 every month to receive up to 100% renewable power. SMUD also promotes the program as Green-e Energy Certified. Meanwhile, MidAmerican Energy offers Renewable Advantage, a program that allows its customers to make one-time or ongoing donations to build renewable energy in their market. MidAm customers can sign up for the program through their monthly bill simply by checking a box. Using the bill for easy access to environmental programs can be an ongoing promotion of your dedication even if your customers don’t “check the box.”  And, NYSEG offers Smart Savings Rewards, a smart WiFi thermostat program.  This program provides customers an $85 bill credit for every thermostat they enroll in the program and $5 for every event they participate in.  Customers using these programs have stronger customer engagement.

Promoting what you do is the most important part of your environmental marketing strategy. If customers aren’t aware of your environmental efforts, then a lot of great work will not be appreciated.

Creating effective environmental initiatives and then leveraging them to build brand trust isn’t easy—but it’s not too complicated either. Your customers are used to being appealed to in a specific way, so using time-proven marketing principles will resonate with them. Utilities should develop environmental strategies based upon the sound tactics utilized by marketers for the last half-century, and create cost-efficient, specific and supportable brand appeal. That’s the key to building a sustainable environmental brand.

We will be releasing our Most Trusted Utility Brands soon. Sign up for our webinar on The Value of Utility Brand Trust.

The Value of Utility Brand Trust

Customers Don’t Trust Utilities’ Cybersecurity Efforts

Customers Don’t Trust Utilities’ Cybersecurity EffortsThe recent massive ransomware attack struck industries across the globe and exposed worrisome weaknesses in the computer defenses of even the most sophisticated international corporations. While there are no reports to date of utilities being struck by the WannaCry virus, consumers’ confidence in the ability of any organization to keep its system safe has been badly shaken.

Cybersecurity has long been on utility officials’ mind: The sniper attack at an electric substation and a holiday cyber-attack scare on an electric utility are a couple of events that keep cybersecurity on the forefront. So, the WannaCry incident serves not so much as a wake-up call as it is a confirmation of the urgency of guarding against cyber threats. But it’s also an opportunity to communicate with customers about what you are doing to protect against and prepare for such an attack.
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Utility Brand Trust Posts a Modest Increase for Q3 2016

Why Brand Trust Matters for Energy Utilities

Brand Trust among residential consumers of the nation’s utilities increased by one point in Q3 over Q2 of 2016. The industry’s overall Brand Trust Index now stands at 694. Emotional attachment brand traits increased two points, while management performance traits increased one point during the quarter. While this is an improvement, utilities are building Brand Trust very slowly, and they have a great deal of work to do to become truly trusted by their customers.

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Net Promoter Scores Net Nothing for Utilities

Customers Will Advocate for, but Not Recommend, Utilities

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Net Promoter Scores Net Nothing for Utilities 

As utilities continue to evaluate customer measurement scores, the most debated one I hear is regarding Net Promoter ScoresSM (NPS®). Promoters of the theory say that if a customer states he or she would recommend a company, then that company would benefit from a loyal customer base and third-party recommendations. For a retail company where customers can select a vendor, this makes perfect sense. Detractors of the measurement doubt NPS’s applicability to a monopoly where there is no choice but to use a utility for service. It is like recommending someone should use electricity.

How Accurate Is NPS in Predicting Actual Promoting Activity of a Utility?

The Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential study surveys 130 utilities and asks the NPS recommendation question. From that data you can calculate NPS in the normal manner (% of 9–10 ratings minus % of 0–6 ratings x 100). However, the following graph shows how NPS performance in no way predicts customers making positive comments about the utility. Continue reading

Electric Utilities: Get the Most Out of Your Business Account Management Program

Study Shows High Operational Satisfaction Combined with Trust Is a Winning Combination

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Business handshake. Business people shaking hands, finishing up a meeting

It is not surprising that managed business accounts for electric utilities are significantly more satisfied with their utility’s operations than other businesses are. Managed business accounts have the best of both service worlds—the ability to call someone at the utility as well as multiple options for self-service. Their average score of 791 (on a 1,000-point scale) on Operational Satisfaction is a significant 20 points higher than the average score for businesses without account managers (771). And the top-quartile-performing utility managed business account programs score 820 or higher.

But there is a catch. High operational satisfaction does not necessarily translate to businesses trusting their utility to advise them or aid in the success of their business. That said, what does it take to build a top managed business account program at your utility that goes beyond operational satisfaction?

The Cogent Reports™ 2016 Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Business study scores Operational Satisfaction by measuring billing, payment, safety, reliability, and customer and field service quality for electric utilities from business customers’ perspective. On these measurements, managed business accounts at electric utilities have high operational satisfaction and are much more engaged with their utility. Continue reading

Welcome Aboard. Now Please Fend for Yourself.

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 “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” –Will Rogers

When you invite people over to your home, you probably would first give them directions (maybe even a couple of route options), offer to take their coat when they arrive and then offer them a seat and a beverage. We want our friends to like us and know that we value their relationship. At the start of a utility relationship, however, we typically ask new customers, or Newcomers, to initiate “start-service requests” on their own and then notify us of the type of bill that they want to receive. Sometimes we ask them to set up a self-service online account so that they can opt-in to more offerings and options themselves. In other words, utilities are sending new customers the message that they are on their own.
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Financial and Technology Offerings Are Key to Engaging Utility Business Customers

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Financial and Technology Offerings Are Key to Engaging Utility Business Customers

Technology continues to transform how people prefer to interact with businesses and services, and this trend is no different for the utility industry. This month I have taken a deeper dive into the relationship between utilities and their business customers. Our research has shown that business customers are more engaged with their utility than the average residential customer. This presents a unique opportunity to build on those relationships using technology as a catalyst.
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Utilities Face a Widening Communication Gap

Utility communication professionals need to become more strategic as technology changes the way customers want to access information.

Utilities Face a Widening Communication Gap

Utilities have a widening communication gap with their customers, hindering utilities’ ability to engage with customers and build brand trust.

According to our recent Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™: Residential study, 54% of residential customers want to hear from their utility via digital media—email, texts, mobile apps, online advertising, social media or websites—making digital communication the most preferred of any communication channel. And yet, only 33% of consumers recall any digital communication from their utility.

Communication Medium Response

That’s a significant mismatch of 21 percentage points. Today, utility communication strategies are stuck in the past, at a time prior to the rise of the smartphone and the tablet. In order to remain relevant, utilities need to develop communication plans that embrace new technologies to address consumer expectations of the new millennium.

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The Consumer Segment Utilities Should Be Targeting Now

With a little effort, these customers could become your most loyal, active    

utility consumer segments to target

Anyone who helps direct the customer outreach activities of a business enterprise knows that, in an ideal world, you should be tailoring your marketing efforts to different audiences. But for energy utilities, which have an obligation to serve a consumer base as diverse as the country, it can be especially hard to know where to start.

So to focus your efforts for 2016, ask yourself: If I could target just one customer segment this year to improve my customer metrics, which should it be?

After nearly two years of running the Residential Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement study, the answer is clear to me: The customer segment you should be targeting now is Hispanics.

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Whom Do You Serve?

How Energy Utilities Can Become Trusted Advisors

2015-07-brand-trustAs utilities continue to pursue stronger customer relationships, they tend to focus on one-size-fits-all operational improvements. Who would not want mobile access or an app, energy efficiency rebates, proactive outage alerts, electronic bills or online energy management tools? The answer is White households, which have lower demand for these offerings. In fact, all of those product offerings have high demand overall, but if utilities want to find the “low-hanging fruit” for adoption, they will be more successful if they target non-White customers. Specifically, Hispanic households have the highest demand and stated usage for each of these products.

This is just one interesting insight from our latest Cogent Energy Reports study, Residential Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement, which explored the benefits of visualizing the customers you serve. Gaining a deeper understanding of your customer base through formal segmentation or visualizing them based upon what you know about them makes your customer management efforts more efficient. Recently published Opower research suggests that utilities spend $5.3 billion annually on customer service. Still, most utilities use the same platforms for every service interaction, paying little attention to customized service approaches by segment.

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