Category Archives: Best Practices

Presentation at the EV Charging Infrastructure Summit

Today, I presented at this conference.

This presentation provided real-life insights into developing a sound EV strategy for utilities and cities. Using from data ChargeHub, I shared best practices to keep in mind as public charging infrastructure is developed. These suggestions are inspired by the actions of forward-thinking utilities and governments, which ChargeHub has had the privilege of assisting with data and strategic advice over the last few years.

Done right, EVs prove to be good for utilities, their ratepayers, and all citizens.

You can download the presentation and the speaker notes here:

How Not-to-Succeed in the Next Decade of Energy Transition

The 2020s promise to be a momentous time for the electricity industry, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on what businesses might need to succeed through the energy industry transition. I might have a privileged perspective on this, having worked with utilities, vendors and investors, first in the IT and telecom industries as they went through their transitions, and then mostly in the electricity industry for the last 20 years. This does not mean that I can’t be wrong (I know – I’ve been wrong many times), but perhaps my views will help others be right. 

I’ve structured this post as a series of “don’ts”, based in part on actual IT and telecom examples that I’ve lived through – I’ve put these examples in italic, but I left the names out to protect the innocents. I found that many businesses have short-term views that lead them down dead-end paths, and I might be more useful in showing known pitfalls than trying to predict the future. 

Don’t Fight a Declining Cost Curve

The IT, telecom and, now, electricity industries are all seeing declining cost curves. The best known one is Moore’s Law, the observation that the density of integrated circuits (and hence the cost of computing) halves every 2 years. Moore’s Law is nearly 60 years old and still strong. It gave us iPhones more powerful now than supercomputers of a generation ago, even though my iPhone ends up in my pocket most of the time, doing nothing. These days, the electricity industry sees the cost of wind and solar energy as well as that of electricity storage dropping at a rate of 10% to 20% per year, with no end in sight.[i]

In IT, telecom and, now, electricity, this also leads toward zero marginal cost, the situation where producing an additional unit (a Google search, a FaceTime call or a kWh) costs nothing (or almost nothing). 

During the IT and telecom transitions, many startups proposed solutions to optimize the use of (still) expensive information processing assets. Some sought to extend the life of previous generations of equipment (like a PBX) by adding some intelligence to it (a virtual attendant), while others were dependent on a price point (like dollars per minutes for overseas calls) that simply collapsed (calls are essentially free now). 

If your business case depends on the cost of energy or the cost of storage remaining where they are, ask yourself, what if the cost goes down 50%? That’s only 3 years of decline at 20%/year. After 10 years, costs will be only 10% of what they are now. Can you survive with near-zero marginal costs? If your solution aims to optimize capital costs, will it matter in a few years? Or, will people just do as they do now, with a do-nothing iPhone supercomputer in their pocket?

Don’t Think That Transition Will Go 2% a Year Over 50 Years

Phone companies were depreciating their copper wires and switches over decades. Phone utilities were highly regarded companies, imbued with a duty for public service and providing lifelong employment to their loyal employees. Service was considered inflexible, but everyone could afford a local line, which was cross subsidized by expensive long-distance calls and business lines. Things were simple and predictable.

In 1980, McKinsey & Company was commissioned by AT&T (whose Bell Labs had invented cellular telephony) to forecast cell phone penetration in the U.S. by 2000. The consultant predicted 900,000 cell phone subscribers in 2000 – the actual figure is 109,000,000. Based on this legendary mistake, AT&T decided there was not much future to these toys. A decade later, AT&T had to acquire McCaw Cellular for $12.6 Billion.[ii]

In 1998, I was operating the largest international IP telephony network in the world, although it was bleeding edge and tiny in comparison to AT&T and other large traditional carriers. Traditional carriers were waiting for IP telephony to fail, as the sound quality was poor, it was not efficiently using the available bandwidth, it was illegal in many countries, etc. The history did not play out as expected. In 2003, Skype was launched, the iPhone, in 2006. Today, you can’t make a phone call anymore that is not IP somewhere along its path. 

I’m seeing the same lack of vision in energy industry. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is famous for being wrong, year after year, in lowballing the rise of solar and wind energy in its scenarios.[iii]

Another example is the rise of electric vehicles. There are about 77 million light-duty vehicles sold in the world, and this number is flat or slightly declining.[iv] Of these, about 2 million electric vehicles were sold in 2019, but the number of EVs sold in increasing 50% every year.[v] In other words, the number of internal combustion vehicles is clearly decreasing and the growth is only coming from EVs. Looking at their dashboards, car manufacturers are quickly reducing their investment in developing internal combustion vehicles, especially engines.[vi] Disinvestment in upstream activity means that internal combustion vehicles will fall behind newer EVs and become less and less appealing. It won’t take 50 years for most light-duty vehicles to be electric – a decade, perhaps.

Don’t Count on Regulatory Barriers for Protection

Telecom carriers fought deregulation and competition, teeth and nails. Back in the 1950s, AT&T went to the US supreme court to prevent customer from using a plastic attachment on the mouthpiece of telephones to increase call privacy – it was called Hush-A-Phone. AT&T owned the telephones and forbid customers from using Hush-A-Phone. However, AT&T lost the court battle, and Hush-A-Phone was sold legally from then on. This landmark decision is seen as the start of telecom deregulation in North America.

The IP telephony network that I mentioned earlier was indeed illegal in some of the countries we operated in. It didn’t matter. We had plenty of partners willing to bypass local monopolies, even if illegal in their countries, and customers willing to make cheaper international calls, even if the quality was not always so great. 

Regulatory barriers are only as strong as policy-makers make them. When constituents see an opportunity to save money or simply have choice, they pressure the policy-makers to change the rules – or elect new ones more attuned to moods of consumers. It’s just a matter of time. 

Don’t Take Customers Nor Suppliers for Granted

In 1997, at a time when cellular phones were still a luxury and the Internet was still a novelty, an Angus-Reid survey of the Canadian public put Bell Canada #2 among most admired corporations in Canada[vii], and it had been among the most trusted companies in Canada for decades. Yet, in 2017, Bell Canada ranked #291 in a University of Victoria brand trust survey[viii]. People love their Apple or Samsung phones, are addicted to Facebook to stay in touch with friends, naturally turn to Google for any question, and use Microsoft Skype to see remote family members, but they now mostly hate their phone company. 

Obviously, Bell is still around and making money, but one can only wonder how things could have been if Bell had played its hand differently. (In 1997, none of iPhones, Facebook, Google and Skype existed).

Suppliers to electric utilities should also listen to this lesson. Northern Telecom (Nortel), AT&T Bell Labs and Alcatel were among the large traditional equipment vendors to telephone utilities. However, a startup was founded in 1984, designing routing equipment for IT networks used in university networks. Over the years, it expanded into all sorts of datacom and telecom equipment – all telecom companies eventually standardized on this new vendor. Northern Telecom and the others went bankrupt or were merged and acquired to the point they could not be recognized. In the process, some telephone companies were left with unserviceable hardware. 

This startup company is called Cisco Systems and is now the largest telecom vendor in the world. 

The same pattern is playing out in electricity. On one hand, you have many utilities that do not understand that many customers want choice. On the other hand, you have vendors, like GE and ABB, that are in turmoil. 

Will you be the future Google or Cisco of electricity? Or the next Nortel?

Don’t Follow the Herd

Full disclosure: I’m a career business consultant. Caveat Emptor. 

The reason for this disclosure is that consultants are great at announcing bold trends that often do not pan out. There is a great herd mentality among consultants, and it carries over to their customers. 

Twenty years ago, one of my clients was one of the early Application Service Providers, a business concept where small businesses could access shared personal computer applications over the Internet. The idea was to reduce the cost of maintaining software installed in PCs and to reduce the hardware requirements of PCs. This client was unknowingly fighting the declining cost curve of computers. It went bankrupt (and my last invoices were not paid). 

The concept of application service providers was heavily promoted by consultancies like Gartner, who presented it as the future of business computing. I guess that Microsoft disagreed. 

I see similar fast-fashion concepts going through the electricity industry. Walking the floor at the Distributech Conference in 2018, it was all about microgrids. In 2019, it was distributed energy resources. We will see what will be fashionable in January 2020. 

My recommendation when you hear the same concept over and over again is asking yourself: is this a real trend or am I in an echo chamber? With many new consultants flocking to the electric utility industry – I call them tourists – , you can hear many concepts that are taken for truth but really too complex to be implemented or unlikely in the fragmented regulatory environment that we have. 

Closing Thoughts

In the end, keep cool: sound engineering, good economics and great customer service will always win.

Which leads me to offer you this quote:

If I’ve heard correctly, all of you can see ahead to what the future holds but your knowledge of the present is not clear.
—DANTE, Inferno, Canto X

All this being said, have a great Holiday season and see you soon in 2020!


[i]                 See this previous blog posts, http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/lower-and-lower-energy-prices-from-wind-and-solar-pv/, for an in-depth discussion of cost decline in wind and solar energy, accessed 20191220. 

[ii]                See https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/38716/did-mckinsey-co-tell-att-there-was-no-market-for-mobile-phones, accessed 20191220. 

[iii]               See this previous blog post, http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/wind-and-solar-pv-defied-expectations/, for a chart of how wrong the IEA has been, accessed 20191220. 

[iv]                See https://www.statista.com/statistics/200002/international-car-sales-since-1990/, accessed 20191220. 

[v]                 See https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2019 and http://www.ev-volumes.com/country/total-world-plug-in-vehicle-volumes/, accessed 20191220. 

[vi]                See https://www.linkedin.com/posts/bmarcoux_daimler-stops-developing-internal-combustion-activity-6580481304071065600-vRK8, accessed 20191220. 

[vii]               The Fourth Annual “Canada’s Most Respected Corporations” Survey, Angus Reid Group, Inc., 1998, page 5.

[viii]              The Gustavson Brand Trust Index, Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria, 2017. 

Customer Interviews: An Essential Step in Assessing Technology-Driven Companies

Insight

Over time, I had to interview the customers of many energy, telecom and IT companies in the context of due diligence reviews. I got to appreciate the usefulness of this process to really understand the prospects of a company, especially in emerging business-to-business markets. The managers of these companies were often engineers or scientists that did not always listen well to their customers. Often, interviewing just a few customers pointed to a hidden gem or uncovered a fundamental weakness.

Why Should You Interview Customers?

As a venture capital partner, a senior manager of an acquiring company, or an M&A specialist, assessing a target company in the context of an industry transition is daunting. This is especially true right now in the electricity industry, with its complex regulatory frameworks, its worldwide supply chain, dropping energy generation costs, and changing customer expectations. In many ways, customers are the key to understand the transition: they buy electricity, are looking at distributed generation systems, and elect politicians who legislate new regulations. Then, what better way to assess a company than speaking to the company’s customers? These interviews also shed new light on the company’s sales forecast and help identify key areas of improvement.

In this article, I would like to share my experience and to offer some suggestions to help you get the most of customer interviews. I do not simply want to provide you with a checklist of questions. There is a certain art in contacting people, putting them at ease, getting them to speak, using active listening techniques, and having a structured analysis of the results.

Decide on What You Want to Assess

The first step of a successful customer interview program is to decide on what needs to be accomplished. Customer interviews may cover many topics:

  • Relationships between the customer and the company.
  • How the customer identified and selected the company and the product.
  • Who are the main competitors.
  • Responsiveness of the company’s staff facing the customer. 
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the product or the service.
  • Potential enhancements.
  • Reliability and availability of the offering.
  • Current and forecast sales volume with the company.
  • Pricing level and structure of the price list.

Depending on the needs of the company or the investor’s concerns, the interviews may focus on a few specific points. For example, it may be required to assess whether the features of a new energy product meets the needs and buying habits of customers, which also requires that the interviewer have some technical and market knowledge.

Select Interviewees

The company normally provides a list of customer contacts. This list must include the name of the company, the name and title of the contact person, a telephone number and an email address. Obviously, the company will tend to give the names of “friendly” customers. A good question to ask is how many customers have been excluded from the list and why. It could be necessary to examine service or returned merchandise records and to ask to contact some problem customers or even former customers. In order to avoid excessive screening by the company and accounting for unavailability of some customers, it is required to ask for a contact list twice as long as the expected number interviews. It may also be that the number of possible interviews is limited merely by the number of customers. This is especially common for companies using an indirect distribution channel or for early-stage companies. Even interviewing just a handful of customers can bring interesting information, but a greater number is required for a large product portfolio or if the distribution channel is complex or reaches many countries.

Another essential step is to get information on the customers being contacted. This information is obtained from internal sources and external sources. In a due diligence, it is common to verify material transaction records or contracts. If the interview program aims at validating these documents, it is necessary to have them in hand during the interviews. External sources, such as the company’s Internet site and the associated LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter profiles should also be read prior to an interview. 

Many startup technology companies accelerate market entry through an indirect sale channel of distributors and OEM agreements. For example, in a recent case, the channel is comprised of national distributors, local dealers, customer companies and end users. Interviewing representatives at each layer of the distribution channel leads to better data than only interviewing one set of intermediaries. Similarly, it is ideal to contact people from various business functions (operations, marketing, upper management, etc.).

When approached professionally, people are usually genuinely interested in helping a supplier. However, many interviews may fail because of customer time constraints and last-minute emergencies. Also, pay attention to the order of the interviews. Some customers will be recognized as more important and should be interviewed at the end of the process in order to first practice with other customers. Similarly, in the case of a distribution channel, it is preferable to start with the end users in order to validate the selection of the distributors.

Get the Logistics Out of the Way

High-tech companies are often exporting a large share of their products. Interviews must then be done by telephone to minimize costs. Although convenient and inexpensive, telephones raise communication barriers that must be minimized. For international interviews, language can also become an issue.

The telephone is a somewhat impersonal communication system, and the use of videoconferencing is too complex. Even for a phone interview, it is preferable to make an appointment. Appointments are especially important if interviews have to be at unusual hours because the customer is overseas. To make the communication more personal, I take advantage of the email confirming the call to send a picture of myself. It is a simple gesture, but a good way to begin breaking the ice. 

It is important not to be disturbed during the interview. Also, keep a pencil in hand to scribble notes to remember to raise some points later during the interview. Finally, a headset frees the hands and permits more natural and relaxed posture and voice.

Have an Interview Guide

We are talking here about general guidelines, and not a rigid script. To get the most from an interview and to keep its natural character, it is necessary to deviate from the expected course and to take advantage of twists and turns of the discussion. The interviewee must not feel interrogated, but in confidence to talk about points that could be sensitive. 

Some base rules in preparing an interview guide include:

  • Agreeing with the interviewee on objectives and duration at the start of the interview.
  • Establishing an atmosphere of trust by offering anonymity.
  • Starting with mundane topics (ex.: confirming the contact’s title) and progressing toward more sensitive issues (ex.: prices).
  • Going from general to specific topics.
  • At the end, asking for global assessments of the company and its products.

Make the Interview Dynamic

Active listening is a good way to get someone to speak more and to ensure that what has been said is well understood. Using open questions (ex.: “How would you qualify the technical knowledge of the customer support staff?”) is preferable to closed questions that are answered by yes or no (ex.: “Is the customer support staff qualified?”).

Lighten the atmosphere by offering tidbits of information, for example by sharing experiences or by giving information previously obtained (“While speaking to other customers, I heard that… Would you agree?”). This transforms the call from a one-way questioning session into a two-way discussion. Obviously, an interviewer with some knowledge of the industry can better get into bilateral exchanges, especially for technology products.

It is important to keep a polite and respectful tone. Appreciate the fact that interviewees are without pay and may be very busy. Thanking people with a small gift after the interview is a mark of appreciation and can help strengthen the future relations with a customer, but first make sure not to breach company policies. 

Analyze the Results

The interview logbook that I use regroups in a table the highlights of the interviews. The table, which spreads over several pages, presents the salient pieces of information gleaned of the interviews organized in columns according to the structure of the original interview guide. At a glance, it is then possible to do cross references on the main topics. The interview logbook is a convenient analysis tool that supports results presentation while permitting to drill down quickly to specific points and to compare what customers have said. For example, it becomes easy to see if end-user perceptions are the same as those of distributors. It is just as revealing to make comparisons between what people from different functional groups have said. 

The analysis can point at possible corrective actions and opportunities. It may also support revised sales forecast. A customer’s marketing staff does not see the same benefits as the end users? There could be an opportunity to better communicate features and functions, or perhaps to review product packaging. Are the dealers waiting for the next version of the product before promoting of it? It could be worth to pay close attention to the product development schedule. Do distributors, fearing technical problems, only want to introduce a new product gradually? Maybe the sales forecast should be pushed back one quarter. Obviously, an investor may judge the situation too uncertain and decide against proceeding.

Plan Enough Time

For a typical half-hour phone interview, an experienced person will have to prepare by making an appointment and reading information. One or two hours are required to write down notes and fill in the interview logbook for each interview. You should plan for at least 3 hours of sustained work for each interview. 

To this, add the preliminary work for selecting interviewees and adapting the interview guide. This can evidently take longer if the interviewer cannot rely on prior work. Analysis and presentation of the results can be formatted in a slide show or a formal report. Analysis and presentation can also be integrated to a global due diligence report. Regardless of the format, count on a minimum of one day of preparation and 2 or 3 days of analysis and writing for a 10-interview program. For a complete and professional result by an experienced interviewer, budget about 8 days of sustained work for a 10-interview program. The work will have to take place over 2 or 3 weeks assuming normal delays for reaching interviewees. 

To this point, one can appreciate why interviews are often outsourced to a third party. Some customers could be unwilling to speak directly to a supplier’s investor. Besides, experience shows that close to half of people interviewed ask for some anonymity – they are more willing to speak to a seemingly neutral party. Furthermore, a report prepared by an external firm will have greater weight when presented to other investors involved in a transaction. 

Closing Words

Making good interviews is an art that takes some practice. To take advantage of the experience, stop a moment, think about what could have been done better, and update the interview guides. The interview skills will also improve over time.

A Perspective on Canada’s Electricity Industry in 2030

I wrote this piece with my friend Denis Chartrand as a companion document for my CEA presentation back in February 2018 (See http://benoit.marcoux.ca/blog/cea-tigers-den-workshop/) but I now realize that I never published it. So, here it is!

Canada Electricity Industry 2030 20180221

CEA Tigers’ Den Workshop

On February 21, 2018, I presented at the annual T&D Corporate Sponsors meeting of the Canadian Electricity Association. This year, the formula what similar to the “dragons” TV program, with presenters facing “tigers” from utilities. They asked me to go first, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it went well. Or, at least, the tigers didn’t eat me alive.

The theme was a continuation of my 2017 presentation, this time focusing on what changes utilities need to effect at a time of low-cost renewable energy.

I’ve attached the presentation, which was again largely hand-drawn: CEA 20180221 BMarcoux.

Telecom as a Model, not a Service, to Electric Utilities

On September 27, 2017, I presented at the Utilities Technology Council of Canada. I have attached the presentation, and here is the abstract.

Abstract: The telecom industry has seen tremendous changes, replacing in just a few short years the Plain Old Telephone System that took over a century to build with the Internet and cellular networks. Since telecom and electric utilities have a lot in common, like linear assets, large customer base and territory, and technology-driven culture, what can we learn from the transformation of telecom to better manage the ongoing technological changes in electric utilities?

GTM Squared Report

I just finished reading the annual survey of utilities prepared by GTM Squared (http://www.greentechmedia.com/squared/read/annual-survey-report-2016-the-future-of-global-electricity-systems). I found it a useful reference to understand the challenges faced by utilities worldwide, and I thought of sharing some interesting highlights:

  • 3/4 of utilities say that regulatory hurdles are the greatest challenge they face today. Preference is to develop market-based reforms, as well as clear interconnection/net metering rules – in other words, mechanisms that deal with/assign value to Distributed Energy Resources. Note that DER (such as distributed generators and storage) will play an increasing role in utilities worldwide.
  • Half of respondents see the consumers at the forefront of the industry’s evolution. However, it is surprising that utilities in the same survey do not put a greater priority on customer engagement.
  • On storage, respondents see an increasing emphasis toward actual projects, and less on the physics and technology of storage. DER vendors now offer better systems intelligence and grid integration to companies focused on building a next-generation power grid (more sustainable and more resilient). Energy storage is now living up to the hype, having seen record installations in 2015.