How Opower Sells Energy Efficiency to Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

Jan. 31, 2014
Historically, only about five percent of small and medium sized businesses participate in utility efficiency programs, even though they spend nearly $60 billion a year on energy consumption–about five times more than residential customers, says Opower. The company is tackling the challenge of selling efficiency to these businesses with a tailor-made approach.

It’s hard to keep up with Ben Foster as he describes what it takes to sell energy efficiency to small and medium-sized businesses — customers of the utilities that Opower serves.

Foster, vice present of product management for Opower—which just began serving National Grid and two other utilities—says it’s all about finding the right person at the business, and tailoring the message to that business as much as possible.

Sound easy? No, but Opower is tackling this challenge head-on. Historically, only about five percent of these businesses participate in utility efficiency programs, even though they spend nearly $60 billion a year on energy consumption—about five times more than residential customers, says Opower.

“We wanted to reach businesses proactively,” says Foster. “We’re using the same tools as we’re using for residential customers, but making some modifications to make it more effective for small-and medium-sized businesses.”

First of all, Opower has to find the right person to talk to. “Is it the owner, the office manager, the accounts payable department? We have to be sure we’re reaching out to the right party,” says Foster.

Second, it’s important to avoid the one-size-fits-all approach, says Foster. It’s easy enough to do that with residential customers; they all have kitchens and bedrooms. But businesses are an entirely different story. Opower tries to target its message to specific industries.

To tailor its messages, Opower uses data drawn from Dun and Bradstreet and other third-party information gatherers, and adds additional information based on its own research.

“We’ve invested heavily into getting the right kind of data. Often, utilities have sparse and inaccurate data. We augment  third-party data with our own manual on-line research.We capture their logos, identify not just whether it’s a restaurant, but get down to specific cuisine,” he says.

The idea, he says, is to build a “rich and robust” profile for the business the company is trying to reach, and then tailor the recommendations and tips for that business. “This is the first time we’ve reached out to small- and medium-sized businesses in such a specific way,” he says.

What’s more, it’s important to reach employees who can have a big impact on a building’s energy consumption. For example, the employees who close up a story or restaurant may not understand the value of turning off lights. For these employees, Opower provides a store-closing checklist and package that includes stickers that suggest employees turn off the lights.

To date, Opower has provided energy insights and recommendations through the web to more than one million small- and medium-sized businesses. Opower is now expanding the program to include Business Energy Reports, store checklists and other messages to customers of National Grid and two other utilities.

Opower isn’t saying yet how much its big-data-based, behavioral change program is saving these businesses. But Foster is excited about the potential. Recently, he worked with a 6,000-square-foot restaurant with a $72,000 annual energy bill. While the company is nit-picky about saving every straw, it holds its thermostats at 72 degrees. “They had no idea they were wasting energy,” says Foster.

Opower says its low-cost program generally saves residential customers 2% to 3% on their bills—by inspiring them to make behavioral changes. Since businesses use about five times more energy than residential customers, will we see five times the savings? Tell us what you think by joining the conversation on our Energy Efficiency Markets LinkedIn Group

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

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