How Utilities are Helping Customers and Their Families During COVID
As COVID-19 has spread rapidly across the United States, utilities have found themselves on the front-line of the pandemic with services deemed essential. With more than 50 million Americans filing for unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic, Energy companies remain committed to helping customers who may be experiencing hardship due to the COVID pandemic.
In addition to offering payment plans or delaying disconnections, energy companies have an opportunity to forge deeper connections with their customers that can yield a much greater and lasting impact.
“We understand that these are unprecedented times with unexpected hardships, which is why we’re offering relief and payment plans to help our community,” said Clint Bullock, General Manager and CEO of OUC (Orlando Utilities Commission).
The following are some steps utility companies can take to help customers mitigate the spread of the virus and assist families and businesses who may have been impacted economically from COVID.
Some of these initiatives are already underway, but let’s revisit those as well as some newer ideas as it will take on-going efforts to overcome the lingering effects of a prolonged pandemic.
Postponing disconnection for non-payment
It is a challenging time to disconnect customers for non-payment.
While most utilities implemented a moratorium on disconnections beginning in March, there has not been clear consensus on when to end the moratorium and many have already reinstated the disconnection process. However, some utilities, such as Hawaiian Electric, have extended the moratorium on disconnections for nonpayment through September 1, while others including Florida Power and Light (FPL) have suspended disconnections for non-payment indefinitely.
As FPL notes, “While we never want to turn the lights off for nonpayment — especially during these difficult times — we remain mindful that unpaid electric bills are ultimately paid for by all FPL customers.”
Connecting customers with assistance programs
Though not new, it is worth mentioning during these extreme circumstances, energy companies can connect customers with their own assistance programs, those operated by federal or state governments as well as those run by local charities. For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps families pay their energy bills and make energy-efficiency upgrades in their homes.
Some are proactively promoting their existing assistance programs on their website and on social media. For instance, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) created a campaign to raise awareness of the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) discount. This state program provides a 30% to 35% rate discount on electric service and a 20% discount on natural gas to low-income customers.
Alternative payment plans
With the growing number of customers that have overdue bills, many are looking to establish payment plans with their utilities so that they can pay down their debt over time. Unfortunately, traditional payment arrangement plans have a poor success rate. Many utilities are solving this problem by offering a prepay option to their customers.
Typically, prepay programs by which customers pay ahead for their electricity, eliminate the need for customer deposits, late fees and reconnection fees. This can save customers a significant amount of money, but especially in times like the current debt crisis caused by the pandemic, an important advantage that prepay programs may offer is an alternative to traditional payment arrangements that allows customers to pay off their debt over time while staying current on their electricity bill.
Our utility customers frequently tell us that their traditional payment arrangements have a very poor success rate with numerous extensions and renegotiations requiring numerous customer calls. Prepay programs have a built-in, automated payment arrangement which allows customers to apply a portion of their payments to their current bill and a portion of their payments to their past due balances. We have seen customers pay off more than $3,000 in past due debt over time without incurring penalties or late fees while staying current with their on-going utilities. By empowering customers with more effective payment options — which are in high demand under Covid — utilities can help their customers get through challenging times with continued service while avoiding increasing debt.
Additional customer care channels
An increased focus on customer care is a must during these times. All companies, including utilities, need to reorient their customer-experience efforts and touchpoints in order to meet their customers’ primary needs, such as safety and security.
“By consciously providing empathy and care during this crisis, companies can build a foundation of goodwill and long-lasting emotional connections with the communities they serve,” notes McKinsey.
A streamlining of customer contact operations, including an expansion of digital channels to include chatbots, is in order. Chatbots allow for self-service customer response and have grown dramatically since Covid because they reduce demand for live agents and decrease long wait times for both those using the Chatbots and those competing for time with live agents. Interactive guides, adaptive FAQ’s, and videos contain the simple, DIY answers that customers are looking for.
Some utilities have considered in-kind donations that help the community survive the pandemic — especially when those donations help the most vulnerable of workers.
Public Service Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G), New Jersey’s oldest and largest publicly owned utility, donated more than 50,000 N95 respirator masks to one of New Jersey’s largest health care systems in an effort to help the medical community meet its increased need for protective equipment amid the COVID pandemic.
“We recognize the dire need that the medical and first responder communities are facing, and we are eager to share our supplies,” PSEG Chairman, President, and CEO Ralph Izzo said in a news release. “This critical staff is on the front lines in the drive to contain the coronavirus outbreak, and we want to do whatever we can to support their lifesaving mission.”
Donations to community programs and non-profits
Now is the perfect time for energy companies to demonstrate wider support for the communities in which they do business.
Via their non-profit foundation arms, several utilities are offering grants to community organizations to cover costs for COVID-related programs and operations. Indeed, community safety is in jeopardy during COVID as a result of financial hardships nonprofits are facing while still trying to serve the community.
The Public Service Company of New Mexico’s Resources Foundation announced it is offering $200,000 in grant money for nonprofits with programs promoting community safety. Funding will range from $10,000 to $50,000, with preference given to those implementing COVID-19 programs.
“Community safety is about feeling safe, whether at home, work, or in the community,” said Laurie Roach, PNM Resources Foundation director, in a news release.
Similarly, Portland General Electric announced that it will commit $1 million to help communities impacted by COVID.
In these unusual, trying times, energy companies have an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate leadership and commitment to the consumers and businesses that rely on them. Aside from setting up traditional payment plans, energy providers can formulate strategies that go beyond those strictly tied to their finances and explore ways to provide support for initiatives that will yield value for years to come.
“This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced — and it’s required us to dramatically adjust how we operate. Yet, our purpose has never been more important. We provide an essential service, powering the lives of our customers and the vitality of our communities, no matter the circumstances,” said Chair, President and CEO Lynn Good of Duke Energy.