Don't Let Money Break You Up
- Dec 3, 2020 10:35 pm GMTDec 3, 2020 6:40 pm GMT
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When the pandemic hit North America in March, utilities across the country suspended shut-offs for late bill payers. Some of these suspensions were state mandated, while others were decided on by power companies. As it stands now, a little over half the U.S. population resides in shut-off moratoria territory. These programs have been crucial for eligible customers who’ve found themselves in financially precarious positions because of the virus—but now they have debts to pay.
It remains to be seen what will happen about the tens of billions of dollars of outstanding utility bills, but one thing that’s clear is that it’s important for utility customer care teams to be especially attentive to their customers over the coming months.
The pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have hurt our economy. Millions have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or seen their income take a big hit. Extended unemployment benefits have helped, but many in need never qualified and, almost a year into this nightmare, benefits are now expiring.
A disproportionate number of the people missing their utility bills are young. Many already have heaps of student loans, and they haven’t had time to put together savings or credit that could help them through this. What’s more, they’ll ostensibly be your customers for many decades to come, so it’s better to get on their good side now.
From a customer care perspective, the last thing we want to do is hit these people while they’re down. However, unless the government bails utility customers out, whether through direct relief or some sort of bond program, soon your company will have to ask them for money.
How do we demand our money without looking like the bad guys?
I think a big part of the answer is transparency. The fact of the matter is that utilities have suffered enormously because of COVID. Duke Energy, just to take one example, recently predicted in their earnings report that lower energy consumption because of the pandemic and waived fees will cost them between $180 million to $260 million. Duke is not atypical.
Obviously, you don’t want to communicate revenue losses to your customers—nobody cares about reduced earnings per share. However, they do care about pay cuts, lay-offs and the likes. They can relate to it and they will sympathize with the employees who were affected or are at risk of being affected. In the end, the effect will be the same on the customer’s wallet, but if they understand why you’re asking for the money, they’ll be less inclined to resent you.
Although we might not see a verdict on this predicament for some time, it’s important that you start communicating with your customers right away. Explain to them what’s happening and what might happen in the future. Explain to them that your corporation is hoping the government steps in to help both sides. Customers will feel cared for and will understand that no matter what happens, your company is on their side but ultimately at the mercy of legislators.
It’s not always that shrewd business decisions are also good for customers. Luckily, when it comes to navigating pandemic bill debt, the right thing for your energy business is also the right thing for your customers. Let them know what’s happening. They’ll be smarter, and they’ll also be more forgiving when it comes time to pay up.