This special interest group is where customer care professionals share tactics on how utilities are improving interactions with their customers. 

Question

Could you share best practices that utilities are adopting to support the company and its customers to overcome this difficult time of a pandemic?

This sharing of ideas can be very useful for exchanging experiences and practices that can be adopted by other electric power companies.

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Utilities' responses to the pandemic can be seen in their public filings with their regulators.  Nearly all utilities have at least implemented moratoriums on service cutoffs, many are offering financial assistance. EnerKnol identified and is tracking over 200 COVID-19 proceedings with utility commissions.

Let me know if you want more details. 

Carlos Sousa's picture
Carlos Sousa on Mar 17, 2021

Hi Brendan, do you have a client in Brazil?

We've seen utilities respond in a number of ways related to COVID conditions, and as customer expectations changed due to COVID. 

Most utilities implemented moratoriums on service interruption due to account delinquencies, though that's a problem that continues to increase in severity until the utilities receive government or regulatory advice on how to manage those debts.  We see many utilities increasing proactive communication about their policies in print as well as on their websites and via email to customers.  Thoughtful and informative communication on these sensitive subjects can maintain good customer relations, but inadequate or incomplete messaging may promote more not fewer customer escalations and calls.

And, we've also seen utilities inundated with calls related to billing issues, account delinquencies, and other sensitive customer issues that put pressure on the utilities customer service centers.  Utilities have begun evaluating BPO style programs to augment their customer support teams while customer calls and digital inquiries overwhelm legacy capacity.  It's impossible to maintain quality standards when operations must be "all hands on deck" for extended periods, and we know customers are sensitive to quality customer service.

Many utilities advanced digital outreach programs to support more customers via chat or email in additional to calls, as may customers prefer those channels for communication.  Due to the sensitive nature of typical customer inquiries during COVID disruptions, chat with live customer service representatives likely performs better for customers than a typical chat "bot."

On an operational level, most utilities had to adapt to work@home just like their customers, which strained the ability to remain connected as teams.  Utilities who weathered that shift best confronted two challenges, technical and social.  

Network security usually takes a somewhat restrictive view in order to maintain security of the IT infrastructure, but most utilities had to face the challenge of moving nearly totally to work@home.  Employees and IT pros quickly uncovered the challenges of maintaining collaboration amidst the inconsistency of home internet connections, VPNs and web conference services.  The best adapting utilities quickly normalized on tools for VPN and conferencing to connect their now geographically dispersed teams and their vendors.  We've all experienced the challenge of conferencing services not admitting some users to calls or shutting out vendors due to security settings.  Adapting quickly to the COVID world allowed top performing utilities to adjust and regain productivity.

But, work@home also challenged team cohesiveness and the natural collaboration of a work site.  The shift to virtual collaboration ended badly for teams that didn't adopt positive practices to encourage team building and cooperation.  It's amazing what happens during virtual meetings when companies adopt a "camera on" policy, which encourages attention and eliminates most of the multi-tasking that the computer can promote.  And, top performing programs schedule time for informal team interaction that gets lost when we shift from on-site to work at home conditions.  Doing virtual lunches with colleagues replaces some of the informal conversation that inspires peak collaboration and team cohesiveness. 

With so many uncertainties still looming, we hope that some of these best practices persist until we return to #theNextNormal, or whatever we'll face in a post-vaccine work space.

Reading meters and billing customers during this pandemic in the Philippines are very daunting tasks especially during lockdowns. With a majority of the meters still analog ones, utilities have no choice but to send out meter readers who end up risking infection and spreading the CORONA 19 virus to customers. Currently available smart meters are either too expensive given the level of monthly payments normal households have, or are difficult to deploy.  We have had to develop our own technology that can read and control analog meters remotely.  We are at the field testing stage, but if successful, this will be a major step in addressing both the utilities' and customers' concerns of meter reading, billing, and ultimately collection.

Carlos Sousa's picture
Carlos Sousa on Mar 24, 2021

Hi Guido, in Brazil we have the same question. Most of our meters are still analog, I would like to know more about the solution that you are implementing in the Philippines. Would it be possible to share with us?

When it comes to financial assistance and payment options, we've seen utilities succeed in two important areas: being proactive and removing friction from participation.

Due to the pandemic and economic impact, many more customers than ever before are in need of assistance — many for the first time. This goes beyond the existing LMI audience who may already be familiar with your programs. It's important to reach out proactively to this larger audience of customers in need, to let them know about financial assistance or payment programs before they fall too far behind. The most successful messages are triggered to send automatically as soon as a customer is late with a payment.

Likewise, removing friction means making it as easy as possible to enroll in programs. We have seen utilities succeed with one-click enrollment — an email message takes the customer to a sign-up page that's pre-filled with the customer's account information, without forcing them to track down their account number, for example. This seamless process will increase conversion and participation rates.

These are best practices that I expect we'll continue to see used when things return to "normal," but in the meantime they have been critical in connecting as many customers as possible to needed assistance.

The Public Utility Research Center of the University of Florida held a conference a few weeks ago.  I was especially impressed with the statements by Sheila Pressley, JEA Interim Chief Customer Officer, about practices the utility has adopted to support the company and its customers.  She described the many changes at JEA because of the pandemic.  For example, JEA's new office building is only 50% of the size of the previous one due to so many people doing remote work.  Employees have indicated they prefer remote work and they are productive.  So unless there's a compelling reason, to change, this will be the future.  In the new building, employees will not have assigned desks.  It will no longer be an individual's desk.  She did mention a concern about making employees feel part of the company with remote learning.  However, with this being the employees' preference, it may give a competitive edge to have a smaller physical space.

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 24, 2021

That's such an interesting point about balancing employee preference with what the experience of a new employee will be. It's one thing if an entire team is onboarded remote or if an entire team met in person and then was made to shift to remote, but how do you mix some of A with some of B and ensure the same seamless trust, teamwork, and culture. I don't know that there are easy answers to that, but it's exciting that we're starting to see companies recognize the reality of the modern world and look to study, learn, and adapt. 

Hi Carlos, this is a real time-loaded question, where you naturally jump into websites of the utilities to gain some insights but what is underneath this public show is not shown. Going to the regulators of Utilities might offer some best practice guidance that each utility adapts, modifies or adjusts for their own values and concerns relating to CORVID. I liked the way

Mark Wilkinson offered up some thinking as he began to reckonize how many "touch points" this covers. Best practices really do magnify when you start reflecting on visiting on site premises, in customer response advice, in supplier collaborations, in how repairing remotely, in how advanced the whole digital journey for Utilities has progressed when the pandemic hit and what has been progressively rolled out since then. 

I think one has to go back to the regulators or bodies that advise, work with Utilities to gain their "best learning practices" as I think it really does depend and a work-in-progress.

Each state had different lockdown rules and approaches, how much did that influence the Utility in their reponse.

No, it is a time-loaded question as it has so many multiple levels to work through.

Which Utilities are regarded are judged best practice or forward looking and they will be leading the way on establishing their practices on this. In time this I am sure will be looked at much harder to learn and gain from. It needs someone to take this question and invest the time- souinds like a University project in some ways.

Incidentially Carlos I was reading this survey from KPMG, from their Australian cliewnts on how innovation is and will be impacted by CORVID.

It has its relevency perhaps in your search for BP because you could argue those that focus on innovation will repond, learn and further make progress from the impacts of this crisis

If interested the link is

assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/au/pdf/2020/digital-innovation-trends-survey-2020.pdf

Cheers

Carlos Sousa's picture
Carlos Sousa on Mar 24, 2021

Thanks Paul, I'll check.

 

During the pandemic, utility customers are not only feeling stressed and anxious but may also be facing billing and payment concerns, and possible shut-off. With fewer customer service operations available, utility companies are also having to deal with possible decreases in customer satisfaction and retention.

Here are three suggestions that utility companies can implement to help support their customers during the pandemic. For more information, please read our post here. 

  • Enhanced Messaging and Communications: Utility companies can help ease some of their customer's anxieties by developing and communicating a uniform message that their teams can communicate to customers regardless of the customer interaction point. This unified message can help to avoid any confusion and reduce any frustrations they may be feeling towards their utility provider. Also, utility companies can leverage both their website and social media platforms as another source of information. They could, for example, have a dedicated landing page on their website with COVID-19 content (Resource Center) that will allow their customers to access information in one central location instead of having to search through various pages. 
  • Deploying a Customer-Focused Mobile App: Customers are increasingly using their mobile devices to get information, as opposed to more traditional channels. As such, one of the larger trends we have seen from utility companies is deploying customer mobile applications. Ensuring that their customers have a seamless mobile experience can ease tensions about billing, payments and can simplify program enrollments. Utility companies can offer autopay scheduling or partial payment plans that can be added into their mobile app settings, easing any stress customers may be facing about billing and payments. Mobile applications can also support features such as easy auto reconnection, which will be very important when moratoriums end and customers may be facing pressures. 
  • Understanding Your Audience: Customer analytics can give utility companies information on who their customers are, what geographic areas they are in and can help identify high risk zones. Also, by segmenting your audiences, utility companies can customize their messaging between their residential and commercial customers, giving them a more personalized experience. 

This is a very relevant question in the unprecedented times we all are experiencing. Utilities, like most other businesses are facing unique challenges that were never anticipated. I would say each utility is handling this differently. One of the key interventions that my utility client is doing for customer is to significantly relax the payment terms and waivers for defaults during this time. Numerous programs were run to help customers get thru this challenging time where many customers lost their jobs due to the pandemic and were unable to make payments for their utilities. While some of these relaxations are enforced by regulators where extreme weather conditions are experienced, some special programs are being run by utilities to support the needy customers.

To support the company, utilities looked at their most critical assets (other than those covered under CNI) i.e. their employees. Utilities traditionally do not have a lot of experience with their employees working remote. This pandemic required people to maintain distance and hence the need to work remote where possible. Due to this, utilities did not have enough IT infrastructure to support a large workforce to work remote. They needed to react, with agility to make this happen. And they certainly did in most cases.

Great question, Carlos. We’ve seen a lot of utilities making strategic, proactive adjustments to protect worker safety and preserve the well-being of their customers over the past year. Utilities have more-actively encouraged customers to enroll in payment assistance, for example, at the same time making it easier for customers to sign up for these programs.

They’ve made incredible use of digital technology to do that, and to circulate important messaging about this difficult issue of billing, especially. Utilities have put their websites to better use in the past year to deliver relevant information about programs and, at the same time, effectively drive brand values, showing greater empathy and compassion through their messaging.

In addition, we’re seeing utilities roll out digital tools like chatbots to assist customers who have had to grapple with new and growing concerns, while simultaneously easing demand on call centers. Utilities are delivering text alerts for customer outreach about accounts and programs now, a shift that enhances their long-held use of text/SMS strictly for power outages. They’re also offering more mobile payment options and other mobile apps to accommodate people’s growing reliance on cell phones. Then they're analyzing usage of these programs to understand their customers better.

Utilities are doing all this in a really targeted way, too, in an effort to satisfy the needs of individual customers. Evidence suggests these new methodologies are effective and will stick around until the next new technology is introduced.

Utilities have been very methodical and intentional this past year, and we’ve seen them make this shift, in large part, by thinking differently about their data; how it’s gathered, how it's stored, what to do with it. They’re recognizing just how much more they can be doing with data on a regular basis, as a go-to tool for many different purposes; that they can take the data they already know about their customers as well as about the grid, and integrate it with even deeper insights gleaned from external sources, and then use that enriched data to get proactive in solving other challenge areas within their operations.

They’re orchestrating departments, breaking down silos, and embracing these technology and data tools to inform decision-making and strategy-building. All of these efforts raise the standards of previous best practices, and we think utilities will only continue to embrace digital innovations and data integration across more initiatives into the future, now that they see just how proactive they can truly be in a crisis.

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