Nearly two decades ago, Texas moved to deregulate its electricity market and Reliant quickly transformed this regulatory shift into an opportunity to serve millions of Texans. This strategy continues today and is heavily influenced by Reliant’s focus and investment in innovation to provide outstanding customer experiences, and to lead the industry in utilizing data to promote organizational agility.
With nearly 30 years of experience in the energy and services industries, Elizabeth Killinger is uniquely suited to reflect on the key lessons applicable to all businesses, the value of corporate innovation, and working with early-stage startups to support an organization’s goals.
In this conversation with MassChallenge Texas, Killinger talks about Reliant’s strategies for embedding innovative thinking in the company culture, staying ahead in the fast-innovation era, using innovation to approach challenges, why identifying strong innovators in organizations matters, and some of today’s most important innovation-related trends.
MassChallenge Texas’ conversation with Elizabeth Killinger, President of Reliant
MassChallenge Texas: How does Reliant, define innovation and embed this thinking across the organization?
Elizabeth Killinger: At Reliant, we define innovation as doing whatever we can to simplify life for our customers. This may mean creating new products, tools and services that provide an exceptional customer experience and help our customers better understand and manage their energy usage. We empower employees to take risks and drive new ideas that will ultimately improve the everyday lives of our customers.
MCTX: What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help Reliant shape and advance its innovation agenda?
EK: Because our core product is electricity – something that every household must buy – our customers ultimately reflect the full spectrum of diversity in needs, age, demographics, lifestyle and region. We look for patterns but are focused on delivering innovations that meet the specific needs of targeted groups. Rather than trying to be “all things to all people” – we choose to create the right innovations for each person. One way we do this is by listening. We use several different tools and platforms that enable us to hear directly from our customers – both the positive and the negative. This allows us to understand what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. That information drives our innovation agenda.
MCTX: What examples does Reliant have that demonstrate how you’ve strategically shifted to maintain your legacy in this fast-innovation era?
EK: Electricity may seem like an unusual place for innovation – after all, it is a regulated monopoly in much of the country. Texas is different, however. Since 2002, consumers have been able to choose who they buy electricity from. To win their business, Reliant has strategically led the industry in the use of data and technology to improve what we deliver to customers. When smart meters were deployed, they changed the availability of data from a once-per-month meter read to daily updates with hourly consumption. We led the market in making that data available to customers – and in a way that was easy to make sense of it and take action. Our approach became the de facto industry standard, but we didn’t stop there. We built customizable tools to detect anomalies in usage and alert customers proactively. We brought our customer experience to an award-winning smart phone app. We led the market into energy home automation – linking customer accounts with their Nest Learning Thermostat and most recently the Google Nest Hub and voice assistants. We relentlessly pursue a frictionless experience for our customers, and work to provide them the information they need, when and where they need it.
MCTX: Is there anything that has stalled innovation within your organization? How did you work through these instances?
EK: As with any company, we go through seasons and that impacts how we think about innovation. Over the years, we have become much more efficient, allowing us to focus on creating the best possible experience for our customers. By enabling an environment that fosters innovation, our people are empowered to create better products and services that meet the needs and lifestyles of our customers. For example, we were the first energy company in the U.S. to use Google’s Assistant developer tools to create visual displays that provide personalized energy information. Although we had to solve for numerous challenges in how to design and present these personalized visual screens, we were committed to doing so and made it happen by working across departments with one common goal: creating a better customer experience.
MCTX: How does Reliant evaluate or determine strong innovators? Do you have any specific criteria or process?
EK: There is a stereotype that innovators are creative types that sit off to the side and spend most of their time brainstorming. That’s not the way we approach innovation at Reliant. Instead, we think of innovators as those who are very much in tune with customer needs. They are collaborators who work across the organization to come up with solutions for those needs, quickly experiment and obtain customer feedback, and ultimately execute to launch solutions.
MCTX: How does Reliant measure the impact of its innovation initiatives? How is innovation integrated into the organization’s process? What are KPIs for success?
EK: Innovation is a learning process. At Reliant, we have learned we must enable a culture of experimentation if we are going to be successful. As we experiment and test out concepts, we learn things that may or may not result in a new product or service – but that could create a spark for a new idea somewhere else. Additionally, we closely monitor satisfaction throughout the customer’s journey with us to ensure we see continuous improvement. One of our most important KPI’s is the quality of customer engagement, not just the quantity. For example, we would rather see 10,000 customers find daily use out of a new feature on our app than see 100,000 customers use it once or twice per year. We are happy to deliver significant value for the 10,000 – and then identify what the others will benefit from and create that.
MCTX: What is the most important innovation trend you see today?
EK: The most important innovation trend we see today is the rising influence of customer choice and resulting expectations. People want to choose what’s right for them – they want it their way, and if they don’t get it, alternatives are easy to find. In the Texas retail electricity market where competition is tough, we hold ourselves to a very high standard as we must earn and keep our customers. This creates a huge sense of urgency to keep innovating to ensure we’re their best choice.