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Decoding CCAs: Transcending Technical Jargon and Connecting with Customers

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CCA Communicator logoClear and concise communication is paramount in the local government sphere. Communicating with residents about Community Choice Aggregators (CCA) poses a particular challenge to clarity and conciseness due to technical jargon and complex vocabulary unique to energy procurement and regulation. Therefore, it’s essential for CCAs to communicate simply and transparently using easy-to-understand educational resources that help customers make informed decisions. 

In this article, Tripepi Smith shares how clear messaging can help CCAs connect with their customers to reduce opt-outs, cultivate partnerships, generate goodwill and drive impactful and innovative programming.

The Challenge: GovSpeak

Imagine this: A CCA is launching an innovative new initiative and the CCA’s subject matter experts delve into the details, craft talking points, slick brochures,a snazzy website and more. But the CCA’s customers respond with, “Huh?” or, worse, “Grr. We’re opting out!” 

We observe three key barriers to communication between CCAs and their customers:

  • An alphabet soup of acronyms: California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Community Choice Energy (CCE) and Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), Investor-Owned Utility (IOU), Net Energy Metering (NEM)…the list goes on
  • Jargon: grid reliability, vintaging, kilowatt hours, renewable, carbon-free, on-peak, to name a few
  • The curse of expertise: attorneys, directors of finance, CCA staff and other subject matter experts who know how to craft policies, set rates and interpret regulatory changes, but don’t know how to articulate what they’re doing in a way that an average customer would understand 

CCA administrators, staff and partners are a unique community of people, intensely engaged in energy issues. Countless hours of research, collaboration and engagement in the industry have established us as experts. We must remember that our customers do not operate at the same level. With little interest in or exposure to CCA, most customers simply want working electricity at affordable rates; they deserve communication that is clear, complete, accurate and accessible.

The Solution: Plain Language for CCAs

Communicating clearly makes life easier for CCAs by reducing time invested in taking phone calls, answering questions on social media, writing explanatory letters or other documents, holding community forums or, in extreme cases, litigating. 

CCAs should consider these basic best practices for crafting easy-to-understand materials:

  • Keep it simple. If your customer pauses too many times to process complex vocabulary, jargon or extraneous information, you risk losing them altogether.
  • Focus on what’s relevant. If the information at the top of an article or a webpage doesn’t apply to a customer, they can lose interest quickly. If you can’t only present relevant information, at least present the most relevant information first.
  • Use active voice. Active voice creates a clear image of who is doing what. It is the most straightforward way to present your ideas.
  • Leverage good design. Design is a vital part of effective communication and can help visually break down complex topics.

The following examples demonstrate how Tripepi Smith has applied these best practices through the lens of three common and complex topics: bills, joint rate comparisons and the power charge indifference adjustment.

Understanding Your Bill

While CCAs purchase electricity for their customers, they rely on IOUs to manage an important customer interface: billing. Customers who understand how to read their bill are well-informed about the financial impact of the choices they make, such as the percentage of renewable content, peak hour usage and the power charge indifference adjustment. Energy bills can be confusing, but they don’t have to be.

Responding to a new Southern California Edison bill format, Tripepi Smith developed a web-based, understanding-your-bill resource to help the California Choice Energy Authority’s (CalChoice) associate members’ customers better understand how charges listed on their bills corresponded to specific services. The online tool, supplemented by a text-only PDF that presents the information in an ADA-compliant format, features an interactive energy bill with detailed definitions, breakdowns of charges and two animated videos.

See an example of the final product here:

Power Charge Indifference Adjustment

Customers often have questions about the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment (PCIA), one element of their monthly bill. IOUs charge the PCIA, an exit fee, to customers who choose another electricity generation service provider, such as a CCA. The fee is intended to cover the difference in the market value of energy resources that were already contracted on a customer’s behalf and the cost of those resources.

To explain this complex fee, Tripepi Smith created a linear infographic that establishes a chronological resource flow, defines key elements and details how the fee ensures that the IOU’s current customers are not burdened with the cost of energy procured on behalf of prior customers who have departed to join a CCA. The infographic is supplemented with a regularly updated list of frequently asked questions.

See an example of the final product here:

Joint Rate Comparison

Annually, CCAs are required to provide customers with a comparison of their rates versus the rates of the local private utility. This comparison is sent to all customers via mailer, as mandated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The mailer must include specific information outlined by CPUC regulations.

At Tripepi Smith, we approach these joint rate comparisons (JRCs) with the customer in mind. By harnessing the power of design, we create JRC mailers that present the necessary percentages, rates, and definitions in easy-to-understand charts and tables. Throughout this process, we ensure that the CCA’s brand is prominently featured and seamlessly integrated into the design.

For an example of a Tripepi Smith-designed JRC mailer, see the “Joint Rate Comparisons” section under “Mailers” on Clean Energy Alliance’s website: 

The Wrap-up

Customers power up CCAs. By following best practices for clear and effective communication, CCAs can reinforce and maintain relationships.

Tripepi Smith’s CCA CommuniCAtor Insights series examines aspects of and best practices for communicating the value and impact of CCAs to ensure community messaging is reaching and engaging key audiences to promote their involvement.

For more #AlwaysBeLearning insights from Tripepi Smith: