Fort Collins Utilities’ Pandemic Response Puts Customers First
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- May 28, 2020 9:15 pm GMTMay 22, 2020 7:39 pm GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2020-05 - Customer Care, click here for more
In Fort Collins, Colorado, as in other towns across the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic has brought numerous changes. The normally bustling downtown area packed with shops, restaurants, and bars has been largely inactive for weeks. Traffic congestion throughout the city has been considerably reduced. And grocery shoppers have become accustomed to one-way aisles and mask requirements. The one place that has grown more crowded is the extensive bike path system, where bikers, walkers, and joggers have been going to take advantage of a warm, sunny spring.
Fort Collins Utilities, which provides electric, water, and wastewater services to the city, has shifted its habits as well. Lisa Rosintoski, Deputy Director, Customer Connections at Fort Collins Utilities notes that all the service changes implemented during the pandemic have been made with customer needs in mind. She says, “Our customers are challenged with the pandemic and our goal has been to keep critical services from placing an even greater burden on them. With everything we do, we ask ourselves how it will impact them.”
One of the most important efforts has been ensuring customers understand what’s happening with their utility services and what kinds of help are available to them. When the pandemic began, the Customer Connections team created a voice message advising callers that they could expect longer wait times on the phone and apologizing for the inconvenience. The message also included online and interactive voice recognition (IVR) options for performing many common tasks.
To ensure customers understood how to make in-person payments despite office closures, the team posted signage in both English and Spanish directing people where to go. Utility payment drop-off locations included a drop-box as well as a local bank and a grocery chain. Meanwhile, to ensure customers continued to get the service they needed despite office closures, the utility allowed customer service representatives to work from home. Rosintoski says, “We provided technology and equipment for home setups to ensure we could still support our customers during this time.”
Like many other utilities, when the pandemic started, Fort Collins Utilities stopped performing disconnects. It has also offered alternative payment arrangements for those challenged with utility bills. “We want customers to know that we understand this is a hard time and that they may not be able to pay,” says Rosintoski. “We want to work with them by offering payment plans to help them send whatever amount they can.”
Additionally, the utility has partnered with Energy Outreach Colorado to offer assistance for two pay periods this year, when it’s usually just for one. Rosintoski notes, “In response to COVID-19, participants can now receive bill payment assistance two times this program year while not exceeding total program year benefit of $1,500.”
A critical component of the support the utility is offering is making sure businesses have what they need as more of them are allowed to reopen. Rosintoski explains, “We created a team to look at how business customers should reengage their facilities as they start to open back up. We’ve provided instructions for things like flushing water systems prior to drinking or, in the case of restaurants, serving to customers. We also have a hotline to talk them through these issues.”
Fielding Customer Responses
While many customers have written to the utility thanking it for its service and assistance, some have been unhappy with one aspect of the service: time of day (TOD) electric rates. Rosintoski explains, “For Fort Collins Utilities, TOD is our standard rate for residences. So, some customers have contacted us because they feel this rate is punitive for those spending more time at home.”
The Customer Connections team has worked with these customers, explaining that being at home actually means they have more control over when they use electricity, so they have the opportunity to reduce their electric rates. To help with that effort, Rosintoski’s team has provided information about which appliances are the biggest energy users in the home.
As Colorado’s Stay at Home order transitions to Safer at Home, Fort Collins Utilities is looking at how to reopen customer service centers in ways that protect both customers and employees. For starters, says Rosintoski, “Once we’re given the green light for customers to come into the lobby, we’ll reopen during our normal lobby hours of 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. This shift will include safe practices including distancing, masks, cleaning, and the use of hand sanitizer. We’ll also have language services available so we can communicate effectively with all our customers.”
After that, it will be a matter of taking additional steps that balance convenience with safety. Rosintoski and her team will continue to keep customer concerns top of mind as they move forward. She observes, “The pandemic is scary for everyone but we’re all just humans getting along and helping each other out.”
What has your utility done differently since the pandemic started? And how will things change again as it subsides? Please share in the comments.