Q:How can utilities successfully engage and build trust with small and midsize business (SMB) customers?

A:Getting SMB customers to participate in energy-efficiency programs is difficult, and although there isn’t a proven formula to engage these customers, we have information and examples to guide you in developing a cohesive and comprehensive strategy.

In this Ask E Source answer, we:

  • Share data insights into how SMB customers view energy-efficiency programs
  • Offer some engagement tips
  • Give examples of how some utilities have used marketing campaigns to connect with SMBs

Know your audience

Knowing your target audience—as well as its energy-efficiency goals and perceptions—is the starting point for developing an effective campaign that builds trust and encourages engagement among SMB customers.

We’ll dig into data from the E Source Business Customer Satisfaction Study, focused on SMBs, to help you understand the energy management needs and attitudes of small and midsize business customers.

Who makes energy-related decisions? According to the E Source E Design 2020 initiative, owners generally make all the energy-related decisions for their business.

Target your outreach and messaging to SMB owners. Connect with them directly to gain their trust and understand their needs. And keep in mind that SMB owners are some of your busiest customers. They may have time to view or respond to only certain types of communications.

Who participates in energy-efficiency programs? Data from the E Source 2021 Small and Midsize Business Customer Satisfaction Study reveals that in 2021, SMB customers showed the same level of interest in energy-efficiency programs that they’ve shown in previous years.

Of SMBs that do enroll in utility programs (figure 1), they’re motivated to participate in programs that:

  • Offer rebates or financing
  • Support facility renovations or equipment upgrades
  • Reduce maintenance needs

Figure 1: Energy-efficiency program motivators

Over one-third of SMB customers are interested in utility programs, products, or services to take advantage of utility rebates or financing. Financial motivations outranked SMB customers’ desire to enhance their own brand or customer experience.
Bar chart showing data from the E Source 2021 Small and Midsize Business Customer Satisfaction Study. Out of 188 survey participants, 34% participate in utility programs to take advantage of rebate or financing.

In your marketing communications with SMBs, highlight the benefits that will resonate with them.

Who has energy-related goals? Our data shows that almost half of SMB customers have at least one energy-related goal at their organization. The most common goals are:

  • Energy-savings goals (45%)
  • Environmental sustainability (16%)
  • Renewable energy (13%)
  • Carbon or greenhouse gas reduction (11%)
  • Electrification (9%)

Focus on understanding the energy-related goals SMBs have. Use that information to tailor your energy-savings programs and communications to complement their goals. Doing so can help boost program participation.

What energy-efficiency programs are they interested in? In 2020 we saw the lowest level of program participation from SMB customers since we launched the study in 2016. That trend continued in 2021. Only 10% of respondents said their business participated in a utility product, program, or service in the past year. Participation is likely still low because of continued strain from the COVID-19 pandemic.

SMBs reported that they’re most interested in:

  • Energy management consulting (36%)
  • Power monitoring (34%)
  • Energy management control systems (33%)
  • Energy data analytics, strategic energy management, or behavior programs (32%)

But they’re mostly participating in:

  • Lighting programs (25%)
  • HVAC programs (19%)
  • Outdoor lighting and maintenance programs (18%)
  • Lighting control programs (16%)

Who do they trust as energy-efficiency advisers? Forty-five percent of SMBs chose their utility as their most trusted adviser (the highest of any resource), and 26% chose colleagues at similar businesses.

Win SMBs’ trust

You can’t make headway with SMB customers if they don’t trust you. We recommend some engagement strategies.

Collect testimonials. SMB customers view their utility and colleagues at similar businesses as their most trusted sources for energy-efficiency advice. Leverage this trust by including testimonials from efficiency program participants in your marketing campaigns. Testimonials that present a specific business challenge and describe a solution and its results are the most compelling stories. Testimonials are also a great way to reward your current program participants by providing them with good PR exposure.

Create customer advisory panels. A customer advisory panel allows you to hear firsthand the voice of your business customer. It also acts as a sounding board to test ideas, messages, and services directly with your customers. By getting in front of your target customers and incorporating them into the process, you can learn the unique needs and behaviors of your audience, all while establishing trust among the SMB panel participants.

Partner with community groups. Your customers already trust their local and state trade and business associations. Collaborate with them to increase outreach to business members. Connecting with well-known organizations and chambers of commerce within your service territory is a great way to show your interest in community involvement.

Recognize customers. Customers are proud of their energy-saving efforts and accomplishments, and acknowledging them gives SMB customers something to strive for in their energy-efficiency plan while promoting utility-offered programs and rebates.

SRP rewards its commercial customers through its Champions of Energy Efficiency Awards. The utility chooses champions based on their adoption of new energy-efficient technologies, behavioral changes, and support of ongoing program initiatives. Here’s what Darin Read, senior marketing analyst at SRP, had to say about the program:

SRP is now in the fifth year of our Champions of Energy Efficiency Awards and feedback from employees and customers alike is that it’s one of the best events we do. Customers love to be recognized for their efforts and there’s usually earned media from both the utility and business side, so it’s a great PR event for all. The awards process also gives us an opportunity to engage with our SMB customers in a unique way. Customers value the visibility of the event and being recognized with their peers (as well as major brands) on the same stage.

Offer your expert guidance. SMBs rated the importance of their account rep being a proactive energy adviser 8.3 on a 10-point scale, where 1 was the lowest score and 10 was the highest. But their rating for how well their rep was performing on that attribute was 7.3.

Knowing that SMBs trust their utility for energy advice, there’s an opportunity for you to engage your SMB customers by giving them personalized, industry-specific guidance on which energy-efficiency measures make sense for them. Then, walk them through the enrollment and upgrade process.

Get inspiration from successful SMB marketing initiatives

In this section, we feature ads from E Source Energy AdVision, our database of more than 6,000 examples of utility marketing and advertising campaigns. We populate this database with ads submitted to the annual E Source Utility Ad Awards Contest. These submissions include information about campaign background and goals, strategy and tactics, timeline, target market, results, and more.

Alliant Energy wanted to encourage its SMBs to sign up for a free energy assessment. It also wanted SMB customers to understand which programs and rebates they were qualified for.

To better reach its customers, Alliant Energy used customized dused data provided by E Source on its top SMB customer segments in the Iowa service area. It the segmented data to send direct mail to SMB customers (figure 2). The utility also sent direct mail to populated areas with the highest concentration of SMB customers in certain industries.

Figure 2: Alliant Energy’s personalized direct mail

Alliant Energy sent out a letter featuring an Iowa SMB customer testimonial and a call-to-action for a free energy assessment. The letter also included a business reply card to make it easy for business customers to fill out and send their information.
Alliant Energy's direct mail letter is focused toward SMBs in the automotive industry. It states with so much power hungry equipment under one roof, it's not surprise that auto shops and dealerships use more energy per square foot than most office buildings. It also includes a testimonial from an auto group owner who participated in the utility's free energy assessment.

The utility followed up with customers via email and phone calls at least six times after the initial assessment request. Alliant Energy saw an increase in customer satisfaction as a result of the personalized campaign.

BC Hydro launched a campaign to increase participation in its Business energy-saving incentive program.

According to its Energy AdVision entry, BC Hydro focused its messaging on the average annual dollar savings from installing new equipment (figure 3). The utility used:

  • Google-sponsored mail
  • Google display ads
  • LinkedIn feed and InMail ads
  • Paid search
  • YouTube ads
  • Twitter ads
  • A 30-second radio ad

Figure 3: BC Hydro’s digital display ad

BC Hydro used digital display email ads to highlight the incentives, including potential bill savings, of participating in utility programs.
BC Hydro's digital display ad says is your inefficient equipment putting pressure on the your bottom line? upgrade now using BC Hydro's energy saving incentives for business and you could save over $3,000 a year on your bill.

BC Hydro gave customers three different calls to action. Each call to action addressed a different stage in a customer’s journey. These included:

  • Start an application online
  • Call the business help desk
  • Request an alliance referral

After launching the campaign, BC Hydro increased its landing page visits by 530%. It also added 281 approved projects.

We’ve gathered several examples of social media SMB marketing from energy and governmental organizations (figure 4). These examples show how utilities can use social media to share opportunities for SMBs and promote their businesses.

Figure 4: Social media posts targeted to SMBs

Use social media to connect and engage with your SMB customers. Share posts:
  • Highlighting utility programs and funding opportunities
  • Featuring local businesses and customer testimonials
  • Promoting energy- and money-saving upgrades
  • Explaining business customer rates

Hawaiian Electric Co. promotes emergency assistance funding for restaurants

The City of Fort Collins, Colorado, promotes local businesses and shares their effect on the community

ComEd promotes energy-efficiency incentives for SMBs to meet their needs during the winter season

Hydro One promotes its temporary reduced rates for residential, SMB, and farm customers

Efficiency Manitoba posts a testimonial from a local restaurant that participated in its Small Business Program