​The new (virtual) reality of SEM engagement

Despite the odds, three Northwest SEM programs used an adaptable, customer-first approach to emerge on the tail end of a pandemic with stronger programs, higher participation rates and more ways than ever to engage and educate customers and occupants. Program administrators from BC Hydro, Tacoma Power and Clark Public Utilities recently joined moderator Sada Naegelin from Stillwater Energy at Efficiency Exchange 2021 Virtual Conference to discuss the lessons learned during the pandemic year, positive program developments, and the innovations and adaptations they will carry forward into a post-pandemic world.

Expanding SEM program reach and inclusiveness

“When COVID hit, we realized that we were all in this together,” said Patrick Urain, Conservation Program Manager at Tacoma Power. “We had to learn new ways to engage, and so did our customers. We all got the stay-at-home order at pretty much the same time, so we had to adapt together.”

And while transitioning SEM programs onto virtual platforms was not without its challenges, Urain believes this new mode of connecting has enhanced his program’s engagement. “Virtual delivery is much more convenient. It’s easier to show up for a virtual meeting than to drive to a new location. But even beyond the added convenience, we found that people who are maybe less likely to engage face-to-face feel a little more comfortable in a virtual environment.”

For Tamara Berger, Industrial Program Marketing Manager at BC Hydro, the switch to virtual engagement not only increased participation of existing customers, it also allowed her program to bring in a wider swath of participants across the province. “Historically, we’ve done everything in person,” said Berger. “The groups were organized in a certain region so they could travel easily and meet as a group for the workshops. But when everyone began to work virtually, it allowed us to extend participation across the province to more remote places like up north, Vancouver Island and the interior. It used to be a barrier for us because we didn’t have enough customers to qualify in those areas, but now we can run our program virtually and more of our customers are able to join.”

With a new virtual engagement approach expanding the base of qualified customers, Urain hopes to see this momentum carried forward into the future to help Tacoma Power continue to increase the inclusiveness of their SEM offerings. “We have a lot of customers at less than 1 million KWh per year,” said Urain, “and that includes a lot of our region’s women- and minority-owned businesses. I see the virtual format as a component to help us continue to diversify the program to include all those customers—not just the largest ones.”

The future is hybrid

In addition to expanding the qualifying customer base, Bill Hibbs, Commercial Programs and Key Account Manager at Clark Public Utilities, noted a higher number of participants among his existing customers’ teams. “It’s now more convenient for more team members to join our SEM calls,” said Hibbs. “And it’s exponentially better when you get two, three or four people from the energy team to hear our message and get a feel for what SEM truly is.”

With the transition, Hibbs has been able to find new ways to support his customers. Without the restrictions of travel, Hibbs and his implementation partner, Stillwater Energy, can join many more virtual energy team meetings than ever before. “It’s been great to listen in our customers’ energy team meetings,” said Hibbs. “We can participate in those conversations, get a better understanding of their perspectives, and answer any questions along the way.”

Hibbs joined all the panelists in agreeing that they will carry many of these positives into SEM’s post-COVID future. “We’ll never completely move away from in-person meetings and walkthroughs,” said Hibbs, “but we’ll want to take a hybrid approach that uses the good aspects of both delivery methods. We’ll listen to our customers and find out together what the new normal looks like.”

“We want to keep the momentum we’ve created,” added Berger. “Before, we and many of our customers weren’t used to a virtual environment. But now that we’re all used to it, we have more participants interested in the value of SEM, and we have more opportunities to engage our customers and occupants moving forward.”

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