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Potential COVID-19 Economic & resulting Utility Customer Engagement Challenges

image credit: I can send you a copy of the paid invoice for the image?

With the prediction of unprecedented unemployment on the horizon, utilities are facing the possibility of a much higher percentage of customers seeking alternative payment arrangements.  Deloitte released advice for companies, COVID-19 Maintaining customer loyalty and trust during times of uncertainty.  “People are paying attention to how organizations are responding, and purpose-based companies that show empathy will likely emerge as the leaders.”  Utilities have already taken the first step by announcing a pause in service disconnections. USA Today reports that several (all?) utilities have announced a delay in service terminations due to non-payment.

In addition, several utilities are offering flexible payment plans to help customers affected by the virus.  Fortunately, utilities already have processes in place to provide customers with these payment arrangements.  Electric Utilities commonly deal with this during the hottest months of the year and gas utilities during the coldest.  This time the volume will likely be much higher.

Utilities with smart meters and the right supporting technologies may be at an advantage in offering more information and choices to help their customers during the crisis.  Some examples include bill-to-date, pre-pay, and bill simulation. 

Bill-to-Date

With bill-to-date customers can find out how much they owe, since they last received a bill.  Much like banks and credit card companies provide up-to-date account information, with smart meters and an enterprise rating engine, utilities can provide customers with their account balance as of today.  This helps customers on a tight budget better manage their expenses.

Pre-pay

If a customer chooses a pre-pay plan, they essentially pre-pay for their electricity.  This provides an attractive option especially for customers that may be facing a high deposit to reconnect.  Instead the deposit can go directly to paying for electricity.  Pre-pay customers can check their account daily as the enterprise rating engine is calculating balances nightly.  The utility can also provide proactive alerts when the balance gets low.

Bill Simulation

Bill simulation technology provides the ability for utility customers to get estimated bills based on modified load profiles via their myaccountonline or the call center.  A select number of utilities provide this ability for customers to estimate their bill change based on adopting solar or EVs.  A handful provide the ability to compare usage on multiple rate plans (flat vs. TOU).  This functionality can be expanded to support estimating bills based on changing usage patterns, for example working from home or for commercial customers that have temporarily halted operations.

Most or all utilities have taken the first step in helping with our current crisis by terminating service disconnections.  All utilities are prepared with payment plan arrangements typical of hot and cold periods.  Utilities with smart meters and an enterprise rating engine will have a marginal advantage in providing superior service and programs for their customers.

Customerthink.com says “Listen to your customers with empathy – and respond”.  And “don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the “same” customers – they’ve changed.  We all have.”.  The challenges utilities are facing during this crisis are critical.  They provide arguably the most vital service for customers trying to stay at home.  Utility customer service must rise to meet the challenge.

Rob Girvan's picture

Thank Rob for the Post!

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Discussions

James Riley's picture
James Riley on Mar 25, 2020 4:22 pm GMT

Thought provoking article Rob.

What strikes me is that utilities can help in many ways but it is a well thought out combination that will help customers the most in these difficult times. What do I mean by this?

Disconnections - curtailing disconnections will help customers unable to pay their bills from losing their service in these difficult times.

Payment Arrangements - help customers avoid potential disconnection by offering payment extensions and payment plans. Utilities already do this anyway, but under current circumstances need to make sure customers understand the available options and potentially slacken qualification requirements.

Empowerment - provide customers with the information needed to control their bills. With many families now staying in place consumption behavior is bound to change. While customers might have a sense of the potential impact, features like  Bill-to-Date and Bill Simulation (or Forecast) can provide them quantifiable estimates. If done in a timely faashion empowering customers to change behaviors as needed.

The hope should be that through empowerment and payment arrangements, very few customers reach the point where in the past they might have been disconnected. And for the ones that do, disconnection might need to be suspended for the time being.

 

Kim Schafer's picture
Kim Schafer on Mar 26, 2020 2:06 pm GMT

Great post Rob, thanks for sharing.  I agree with James as well.  Utilities/regulators are doing a great job, as always, taking care of their customers in the face of adversity and challenges with payment for service.  I believe utilities are doing all they can with the technologies and resources they have in place today (curtailing disconnections for non-pay and payment arrangements).  But at the end of the day, customers still owe for what they have consumed- round ups, relief, donations, LIHEAP and others are all great assistance programs to aid in that.  However, as you point out, now with the advancement of smart meters, bill-to-date, pre-pay and bill simulation/what-if's are game changers for the future of customer engagement and empowering the customer to control their usage and their spend.

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