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Behavior Programs – Woof!

By March 17, 2014November 7th, 2021Energy Efficiency, Energy Rant

I always like it when things converge to demonstrate points I make, after I make them.  Back in August, based on an article that consumers don’t trust savings from home energy audits, I said one reason for this is our industry has treated consumers and customers, in general, like animals.  Boiled down in simplest terms, customers get a “dumb” award for implementing some type of energy efficient measure.  A dumb award is something you give animals to do tricks or to get them to do what you want them to do.  They don’t know why.  All they know is, if they go outside, take a wiz in a timely manner, and come back inside quickly, they get a biscuit.  Similarly, if the customer animal buys “this” boiler, then they get a cash incentive for doing so.  It’s “efficient” and shiny and it’s smaller and is pretty to the eye.  What are the savings?  Not a clue.

This is a huge problem.  One could say our industry should be ashamed of itself for treating customers like animals for all these years.  Good grief.  When people clip coupons, they know precisely why they are clipping coupons – to save precisely 75 cents on a box of Cheerios – any flavor.  They have all the information they need.  They can see the price, versus the Malt-O-Meal or Great Value versions.  They know the taste and texture difference, and if they are really geeky, they can compare ingredients and nutrition information.  They have all they need to make an informed decision.  Who’s to say they are wrong?

When a customer gets $200 for the pretty boiler, they comparatively don’t know a damn thing.  The program has trained the trade allies to pimp the pretty boiler, and so that’s what they do.  At most, the customer gets a price comparison of the pretty boiler with biscuit versus the homely boiler without a biscuit.  Maybe not.  If provided with two options, they may not choose the pretty one because it still costs way more than the homely one.  And now that the customer thinks about it a little, the homely boiler will be buried with boxes, ladders, recycle bins, leftover paint, and other crap common to the equipment/storage space.  I ask, can anyone really claim to declare the attribution for such a project?

To further treat customers like primates in a laboratory, we conduct program evaluations to examine why these interesting beasts behave as they do.  We can’t tell them anything about their project.  Whoa!  This is rule number one when conducting program evaluation.  Never, ever, ever, give the customer any inkling of any professional opinion whatsoever[1].  It’s like taking the dog to the vet and distracting them with treats, toys and goofy sounds; so pop that needle in for a shot of rabies vaccine.

This all came together this week as I viewed an AESP brown bag called “Why bother. Is Energy Efficiency Really Worth It?” (to the residential customer).  I was scribbling notes as I normally do when valuable information is flying through the air.  In order to fully capture my take on what the presenter, Jean Shelton, was saying, I quote directly my notes as written.  This was my take from the presentation: “[residential] Customers implement up to three measures, and if they see nothing [on their bills] they get pissed – and don’t believe in the savings anymore – good for us!”

This is precisely what I’m talking about.  Customers understandably feel betrayed because parting with their indestructible 1950s refrigerator, adding a programmable thermostat they can’t stand and don’t know how to use, and buying the sexy, expensive high efficiency wash machine doesn’t save them $300 per month, as they expected.  Who told them what to expect?  No one.

Talk about free riders!  What type of thermostat did you have prior to the one the program implementer installed? Woof! Did you adjust that on a regular basis as you arrived and departed home?  Woof!  Woof!  Have you reprogrammed the thermostat since it’s been installed?  Woof!  Are you seeing the savings on your energy bills?  Grrrrrrruff!  Grdrdrdrdrdrdr!  Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!

An up and coming rage in the EE industry is “behavior” programs.  This concept could be great, but you see, our industry mentality is burned into the lexicon for all to see.  It screams customers = animals.  Why not call these programs obedience programs?

I’ve read about and listened to speakers describing some obedience programs.  They include earning points for doing things like putting the dishwasher in “air dry”, and if participants do this forty eight thousand times, they win a movie ticket.  Woof!

How about treating customers like thoughtful human beings who know how to use a fork and knife?  Why not simply provide reasonable, accurate information rather than faking them out a la the annual exam at the veterinary’s office?

[1] In case you are unfamiliar with program evaluation, I am serious as a root canal when I say, do not give any opinion or even facts about project performance, ever, while talking to the customer.  “Yep.  That’s a new boiler alright.”  That’s about all one is to say.

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • I enjoyed your Rant about Behavior Programs. I believe you hit the nail on the head with the difficulties of engaging people in these programs – but the industry is make some slow progress.

    I’ve always believed the general potential energy savings for most buildings and homes is about 50% hardware/technology and about 50% behavior/engagement. The problem has been how to get “sticky” engagement of people. Numbers are certainly a help for some people but generally there is much more to it.

    The underlying problem is that it is hard, tedious and usually difficult to know if you have results (especially if you don’t know a therm from a berm or a kWh from a popcorn popper). We just have to keep peeling back the onion to get to the apple core.

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