SmartMark Communications: To the new frontier of energy innovation
How does it feel to grace the cover of our Top Energy Technology Solutions Providers issue?
It is an honor for the Company and a major milestone for the utilities industry —that a company focused on customer experience and communications is in the spotlight.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by communications being essential to tech investment?
When I first started SmartMark Communications and later SmartEnergy IP, I saw a great need to simplify and streamline the jargon coming from big tech companies. My company was born in the dot-com era—when investors were pouring money into companies that had “buzzy” things to say but no product or revenue stream. Once I began to learn the language and the industries better, I was less intimated by the acronyms and began to ask meaningful questions like “Why are we doing this?” and “What problems are we solving?”
"SmartMark helps utilities choose the most relevant, innovative technologies that can prove to be long-term, sustainable investments for the maximum benefit of consumers"
My first two clients, for instance, were in telecom and utilities, so I grew up in two highly innovative industries that have disrupted significantly over the last two decades. Today, the customer dictates market innovation, so large service providers need to articulate customer benefits right away. Customers don’t care what the latest technology is; they are more concerned about solving their problems as fast and as cost effective as possible. That is why many utilities struggled to roll out AMI successfully to consumers. They were shocked that customers could not care less about operational efficiencies of the utility. Why is that such a surprise?
I would caution the same thing around marketing 5G. Customers care that they have ubiquitous and accessible Wi-Fi. They couldn’t care less how they get it. When I am on a plane, I don’t care if I get a connection via satellite, Wi-Fi, or my neighbor’s hotspot.
How does this translate into large scale technology investments for utilities?
Perhaps I oversimplify things, but if a company cannot clearly articulate their value proposition to a normal person on the street, then something is wrong. If your grandmother doesn’t understand the benefit of your technology, then you have not succeeded in effectively extracting the customer benefit. This is critical in the utilities business case. We learned a valuable lesson through early smart grid deployments: The utility must clearly articulate a strong case of customer benefits and offer up a matching customer education plan. These days it is becoming more common for regulators to request these items as part of the approval process for the initial investment and later for cost recovery.
What exactly does SmartMark do?
SmartMark Communications is a strategic partner to technology companies, solutions providers, organizations and customer facing businesses. We help identify what companies strive to be and help them extract and articulate their market differentiators. We also are very savvy about emerging technologies and industry transformation and offer more than communications services; we offer full-scale innovation consulting. We understand our industries through and through and know the influencers, trends, latest tech advancements, and also what the unique magic recipe is for companies to emerge as leaders in their respective industries. Then, we take them there.
What is SmartEnergy IP?
As I mentioned, one of my first two clients was a utility solutions provider. SmartMark was quite young but having spent a good deal of time in the telecom space, I was no stranger to technology evolution and industry transformation. I quickly earned a reputation for understanding emerging trends in network evolution and strategic investments in the energy and utility market. However, about 10 years ago, a colleague of mine ended up at a utility that was nervous about rolling out smart meters after the backlash in California. He called me because the utility needed a customer strategy and they had difficulty understanding the long-term customer benefits of new smart grid technologies. I was the only person he could think of at the time, who understood in depth what upgrading a network was all about and how to translate that to customer.
That call really changed the course of my company. I became an early advocate for AMI customer education and founded the U.S. Department of Energy Smart Grid Customer Engagement Working Group. From there, I assembled annual symposiums of utilities from across the country, and later the world, to come together and share best practices around AMI customer education. Of course, the meter was just the first piece in a large-scale network evolution for utilities.
I will hold my guitar in one hand and my light bulb in the other and look for ways to make energy education and technology engagement exciting to all
Today, SmartEnergy IP is the unmatched leader in articulating the customer benefits of grid modernization. We started SmartEnergy IP to focus exclusively on utility customer education.
What makes you most excited about coming to work?
It is hard to convey the level of excitement I have around articulating customer benefits around emerging technologies and innovation. I am a firm believer in creativity and not afraid to be the first company to try something out of the box to win over customers, as long as customers are part of the evaluation and trial processes. Experience has taught me that this is not rocket science; customers tell you exactly what they want.
Today, I am super excited about the next wave of customer engagement in energy and the new frontiers for utilities. I believe the true ‘utility of the future’ understands its customer and is not afraid of becoming a more holistic service provider. I also believe that regulators will support some level of innovation in this area as long as it offsets some of the tax on customers for consistently upgrading technology. At the end of the day, utilities were remiss for telling regulators that grid modernization only required a finite amount of money. Technology is constantly evolving and needs continuous support. Ongoing sustainable investments will only be achieved if utilities can find ways to compensate for the costs. This involves new market opportunities. As long as they are within the safe confines of energy delivery and management, we can all be comfortable with pushing past the meter. But that opens new doors for utilities to be innovative inside and outside the home.
From smart homes to smart cities, AMI networks now serve as a platform for our digital communities. Utilities must learn how to optimize these investments, put customers at the center of their designs, and re-imagine the relationship between utilities and customers. With that, new business models will emerge, and new levels of satisfaction will be achieved. I see a world where it’s a simultaneous win-win for utilities, stakeholders, customers, as well as regulators, where we all have a little more fun with energy delivery while understanding the seriousness of the task at hand.
What’s next for SmartMark and SmartEnergy IP?
After speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) a few years ago and walking the floor, I made a vow to ask every tech company that came my way the same question: So, what? Just because something has a wireless chip installed in it doesn’t make it smart. I’ve also asked myself, after 20 years, what’s next for me and for SmartMark. What really is smart? My answer, these days, is always the same—have fun on the road to change. If I’m not having fun with the solutions I am providing, then I am doing something wrong. Smart, as I see it, is about solving problems and ‘making life better’. In my mind, that means not only being more productive, but making life more enjoyable. Smart is more about people than it is about devices.
As for the future, I see a world where the future of energy and music are intertwined. I see the ‘utility of the future’ appealing to new younger consumers. I will hold my guitar in one hand and my light bulb in the other, and look for ways to make energy education and technology engagement exciting to all. Rock on.