EMI Consulting Insights
  • Posted 2.25.16 by Kara Crohn, Managing Consultant
    Process Mapping Primes the Pump for Successful Program Design and Useful Process Evaluations

    When we embark on a journey with our clients to support program design or to understand what really makes a program work, we start by developing a logic model with them. Logic modeling clarifies program staff’s and stakeholders’ understanding of how the activities they perform will logically lead to the goals they want to attain, and it establishes interim markers of success that can be measured along the way. However, it is often necessary to dig deeper into how activities are conducted to identify places where efficiency can be designed into the program’s operations.

    Process mapping is the tool we use to go deeper. The opportunity cost of not creating process maps is potentially overlooking gaps or redundancies in the program’s activities that could have saved the program money, time, or frustration had they been identified and resolved sooner. With this in mind, we work with program staff and those who interact with the program to collectively map out day-to-day operations; to have a conversation they rarely, if ever, have time for during their day. To get the most out of the exercise, it is critical to have the right people in the room and to foster an environment of exploration that respects differences in perspective.

    From a program design perspective, we use process mapping for locating opportunities to build in efficiency from the beginning, avoid pitfalls, and engender collaboration across job roles. From a process evaluation perspective, we focus evaluation questions on aspects of the program process in most need of feedback and tie performance metrics to critical program process steps. We also map the actual process against the designed process to more thoroughly identify implementation fidelity questions and, ultimately, feed timely design considerations back into the program design cycle.

    Process mapping is a simple tool that requires methodologically rigorous facilitation to produce meaningful results. Facilitated well, staff and stakeholders who participate in the process mapping exercise leave with a deeper appreciation for the work they each perform and some immediate steps to improve the efficiency of their work. They also have a better understanding of how their daily actions will lead to longer-term, farther-reaching goals described in their logic model. 

  • Posted 12.15.15 by Danny Molvik, Consultant
    3 Strategies to make your utility website more user-centric

    Customers are increasingly reliant on the web as their first source for gathering information on products and services. According to a report from Fleishman-Hillard (1), 89% of consumers use search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) to find information before making purchase decisions. Because of the growing reliance on websites as a communication tool, it is imperative that your website is both usable and searchable if you hope to effectively serve your customers. According to J.D. Power & Associates, engaged customers are more likely to prefer self-service options available through a website more than calling the service product provider. (2) Through my experience conducting web usability studies with a broad range of utility customers (including contractors, businesses, and homeowners), there are three strategies utilities use to successfully gain and maintain a user-centric website:

    Guide the user through the website with pictures and graphics: Images allow users and trade allies to scan web pages quickly for information or provide cues directly related to the reason for visiting your website. Users are drawn to and strongly prefer graphical links as navigation tools, which help to streamline the amount of information they have to read.

    Provide clear signposting: Most users visit your website to accomplish a specific task (e.g., pay a bill, report an outage, check on incentive availability). What they want is guidance on how to accomplish this task as easily and quickly as possible. You must anticipate what users need, and provide clear headings and links that will lead them to specific and relevant information.

    Know your users: You can anticipate users’ needs based on web analytics and historical communications. Provide information that addresses their common questions and directs them to more detailed sources if desired. Use language that is easily understood by your target customer group, and avoid industry jargon whenever possible.

    Providing a more user-centric website will improve the quality of your customers’ online experience and increase their satisfaction with your products and services overall. Benefits from adopting these strategies often include improved website usability, reduced resource burden, increased utility program participation, and strengthened customer relationships. To achieve this, the focus of your website needs to shift from an emphasis on providing to customers information you see as valuable, to instead focusing on information that your customers desire.

    (1) http://fleishmanhillard.com/2012/01/31/2012-digital-influence-index-shows-internet-as-leading-influence-in-consumer-purchasing-choices/
    (2) http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2014-consumer-engagement-study
  • Posted 12.3.15 by Michael Hamiliton, Consultant
    Breaking Apart Small Business Decisions regarding HVAC Maintenance Contracts:


    According to the Small Business Administration, there are 23 million small businesses in the U.S. that account for over half of the nonfarm private gross domestic product and occupy 30-50% of all commercial space. (1) With increasing activity by small startup companies and lower rates of startup failure, this sector will undoubtedly remain a vital contributor of the U.S. economy in the foreseeable future. (2)

    Now pair this projection with a recent finding from the J.D. Power 2014 Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study – overall satisfaction with electric utility providers is lowest among small businesses. (3) Businesses spending between $250 and $499 per month on their electric utility bill averaged about 10 points lower (on J.D. Power’s 1000 point scale) than businesses with higher utility bills.

    Why are small businesses relatively less satisfied with utility providers? Small businesses are diverse and have unique operational needs and preferences, particularly with respect to energy-related equipment and usage. Additionally, many small business owners simply do not have time and/or resources to worry about “secondary” issues like their energy bills.

    At EMI Consulting, we use innovative market research methods to help our utility clients better understand their small business customers. For example, EMI Consulting recently worked with the California investor-owned utilities to characterize how business owners and managers make decisions about the maintenance of their heating, air conditioning, and ventilation (HVAC) systems (a copy of the report is available here ). We estimated the relative importance of decision factors related to the purchase of an HVAC maintenance contract (as shown in the figure to the right). (4) Not surprisingly, the cost of a maintenance contract is important to small business customers (accounting for 26% of the overall decision weight, on average). But our results also show that small businesses greatly value improvements in the reliability of their HVAC systems (21% of the overall decision weight). The small business stakeholders we surveyed expressed comparatively little concern over improvements in the longevity of their HVAC systems, the number of maintenance visits they receive per year, indoor air quality benefits, and environmental impacts.

    While it is clear that contract cost plays an important role in small business customers’ maintenance contract decisions, our findings also suggest that the value proposition that may resonate most deeply with the small business sector is that maintenance contracts improve the reliability of HVAC systems. Insights like this could have a big effect for programs promoting the benefits of regular maintenance.

    (1) Source: http://www.sba.gov/offices/headquarters/ocpl/resources/13493
    (2) Source: http://www.kauffman.org/newsroom/2015/05/nations-startup-activity-reverses-five-year-downward-trend-annual-kauffman-index-reports
    (3) Source: http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2014-electric-utility-business-customer-satisfaction-study
    (4) As revealed by commercial stakeholders responsible for two or fewer business locations comprising five or fewer HVAC units.
  • Posted 6.10.15 by Michael Blonsky, Consultant
    One Storage Technology to Rule Them All?

    Short answer: Absolutely not.

     While it seems like lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate the EV/hybrid car market, the grid energy storage market is still very much up for grabs. Finding the right technology for a particular application is complicated given the wide range of important technical factors. Peak leveling and other high use systems require excellent cyclability, power capacity and operating efficiency. Backup power systems should focus more on high storage efficiency, power capacity, and energy capacity. Grid stabilization systems should be specialized to quickly and efficiently adjust power output and switch between charging and discharging states. Grid interconnection locations greatly influence technical and economic needs for storage systems; Utility scale systems require high efficiency and long lifetimes, while distributed systems are often small, modular, and low-maintenance.

     Once the application’s important factors are defined, it is still difficult to choose from all of the possible energy storage technologies. For supply side applications, pumped hydropower and compressed air storage are the most mature solutions, but lead to environmental concerns and energy loss from transmission. Large-scale batteries like flow batteries and sodium batteries have significant technical advantages in efficiency and lifetime. A wide range of technologies is available for demand side and distributed applications, each offering something a little different. Batteries (namely Li-ion and lead acid) have many strong technical features, thermal storage is very cheap and practical for specific applications, ultracapacitors have very high power capacities, and flywheel storage is a mature solution with a long lifetime. Given such a wide variety of factors and technology options, it is likely that many energy storage systems will find their niche in the grid.