Do you make getting rebates easy for consumers?
While many utilities offer energy efficiency rebates, some consumers must jump through hoops and fill out paper forms to get money back. While this might have worked a decade or two ago, consumer expectations have shifted. The way utilities deliver rebates should change, too.
Efficiency Services Group Vice President of Operations & Member Engagement Miranda Boutelle partnered with Consumers Power, Columbia River Public Utility District and several other utilities in 2022 to make rebate forms easier for consumers.
“Often when you go from a paper process to a digital one, the tendency is to take the same information in the same order and make it digital. Admittedly, this is what we did on our first version of the online forms,” Miranda notes. “Our 2022 redesign focused on the consumer, giving information in a more user-friendly order to make the rebate process easier.”
“Online rebates improve our member experience,” Consumers Power Marketing and Business Development Manager Jon Kloor says. He helped his utility transition to the new forms in March 2022. “That’s ultimately what it’s all about.”
The ESG team had two hurdles to help utilities jump: improved accessibility and faster rebate updates.
“We want to make it easier for everyone to participate in the programs,” Miranda shares. “At the same time, rebate forms make it easier to update rebate terms and amounts, too.”
Historically, utility staff share rebate application forms online as PDFs. When rebates changed, staff would make changes to rebate content (amounts, eligibility and criteria) and post new PDF forms for consumers on utility websites. Sometimes the staff could make changes. Sometimes the staff had to ask for help to make changes, a step that might or might not happen.
Adobe created PDFs (short for portable document format) in the 1990s. For three decades the documents have offered utilities and consumers some flexibility beyond printing a rebate, filling it out by hand and returning it to the utility. But times change. Pioneer Web Solutions Manager Charlie Stanley flagged issues with rebates in this aging format.
“Charlie provided us with a ton of info on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues associated with PDF applications, and let us know about litigation that has happened in other parts of the county, specifically targeting electric utilities,” Miranda says.
Time also presents a challenge for utilities.
“In any given week I’d get rebate forms through email, snail mail, even faxes,” Jon says. “There was lag time involved before you could begin processing.”
This lag time was compounded by the Consumers Power staff schedule of four 10-hour days, with the office closed on Fridays— the day many rebates arrived at the office.
ESG began working with utilities to refine and improve the rebate process. The new forms debuted in January 2022.
“We like how seamless everything is,” Jon says. “When we get a rebate call, we transfer the member to our rebate department — ESG. It’s fantastic. And — what I argue is more important — by using web forms you all but guarantee the member or contractor has included all the information needed to process the rebate.”
Tired of telling people they do not qualify for a rebate? Web-based rebate forms can include questions to help consumers find out right away if they qualify.
A Blachly-Lane Electric rebate application for insulation asks:
- Home type (site-built home, multifamily home, manufactured home, or new construction)
- Heat source
- Area of home insulated (attic, floor or walls)
A Douglas Electric rebate application for a clothes washer asks:
- Home type (site-built home, manufactured home or multifamily home)
- Is the appliance Energy Star certified?
- Water heater type (electric or gas)
Once the consumer finds out if they qualify, they add the appliance brand and model number. Then they upload a picture of the receipt.
“We focused on user experience,” Miranda notes. “Our old forms asked for account number first, so a customer would find their bill to enter the first data point. Next, we asked for their name, address, etc. Then, we would ask about home type, eligibility and project criteria. A customer could enter all their data only to arrive at the eligibility section to find out that they don’t qualify. Our new rebate forms ask about eligibility first.”
Sustainability played a large role in the rebate form design, too.
“We set the forms up in a way where we are able to roll out changes instantly,” Miranda says. “Utility staff don’t have to do anything.”
“ESG processes all our requests and rebates,” Columbia River PUD Distribution Engineer/Energy Services Manager Mike Arend says. “I love the work that ESG does and I’m very happy with their processes and communication.”
The rebate form system allows for both standardization (with Bonneville Power Administration rules) and specificity (for unique differences from utility to utility). The forms use BPA requirements and criteria and can be further customized to include utility specific rebate amounts, terms and conditions and other language.
When BPA makes changes to rebate programs, all utilities using that form get the updates as soon as ESG makes them. ESG also can make utility-specific changes instantly.
“When BPA changes happened last spring, we made and deployed changes at the click of a button. It was glorious!” Miranda shares. “Once the digital forms are deployed, making changes is a breeze.”
ESG offers forms can either be embedded directly on a utility website, or a utility can direct consumers to a different site when they click to find rebates.
Data is stored in the custom database that we had built by Pioneer ‘s web team specifically for ESG members. We are currently working on our standard data retention.
Because of the conditional logic ESG uses, consumers cannot print the online rebate forms. But that shouldn’t keep consumers from accessing rebates.
“If a member wants a PDF form, they ask and we can send them one,” Jon says. “Our ag folks tend to prefer paper rebates.”
ESG has two options for taking care of people who are not computer savvy:
- Option one: Fill out the form on a consumer’s behalf over the phone (you could potentially offer this service in the office). Ask them the required questions and then read the terms and conditions to them for verbal consent.
- Option two: Create a generic PDF application to function for all residential rebate measures. Consumers can indicate on the form which rebate they are applying for, either by checking a box in a list of measures or writing it in.
While the rebates portal has been up for almost a year, Jon says he hasn’t publicized it much yet.
“I plan on reminding members about our rebate program and the online portal in our February Ruralite magazine,” Jon says. “It’s so much easier and convenient for our members. You don’t have to print or mail a form. Just submit your information through the portal, and you get immediate confirmation that your rebate got through. The forms save time and streamlines the entire process for our members.”