PEOPLE SHIFT: HOW THE PANDEMIC CHANGED UTILITY CUSTOMER SERVICE PRACTICES
- Oct 22, 2021 1:52 am GMT
The following information was released by the
Several customer service workarounds and ideas that emerged out of necessity during the pandemic have become established practices and expectations for utilities. Public power utilities shared a variety of ways in which they've revamped customer service and other supports, including how those changes have helped the utility to operate more efficiently, increase customer satisfaction, and boost use of programs and services.
Recognizing community needs
When the pandemic initially closed
Recognizing that "success" might look different,
"We also looked internally to see how we could shift some programs," Frye noted, seeing the pandemic as an opportunity for businesses to upgrade equipment and become more efficient during downtime.
On top of efforts to connect with commercial customers, the utility further enhanced its relationships with other local agencies.
As a result, the utility saw a huge increase in its regular monthly rate assistance program. "We realized that our community looks different now than it has historically. We have a more affluent community, so funds that hadn't been used previously [such as through the
That recognition started on the front line: with customer service representatives. "Early on, we were flooded with very emotional calls, and sometimes our representatives could only listen," Frye said. Those calls helped identify important gaps, like needing to increase assistance levels. Staff learned quickly how best to filter information, to direct residents to available resources, and to sign customers up for applicable assistance programs on the spot. "We saw that from a business perspective, too; even though we were sending rebate information out, we also wanted to cross-promote any small business loans and other economic resources," she added.
Chaplin noted that while there are still many challenges ahead from wildfires to heat-related grid emergencies Roseville Electric Utility is well positioned to continue to provide low-cost, reliable energy, now and in the future. "That all happened last year while everyone was at home, and that really brought some of our industry's challenges to the forefront," Frye added.
Forging faster connections
At the pandemic's outset,
At the height of the pandemic, the office was closed to the public, eliminating the option for in-person payments. SELCO has since seen an increase in customers using online bill payment options. Customers opting for paperless billing increased by 12.35%, and the number of customers enrolled in online autopay increased by a whopping 22.5%, since
After the local senior center closed because of the pandemic, SELCO noted a surprising downturn in the number of assistance applications. It ramped up communication efforts to better help customers struggling to pay utility bills. In addition to giving customers the grace they needed, the utility partnered with local social service agencies to conduct outreach; included information about local assistance resources in flyers sent along with bills, in its newsletter and on social media channels; and had a credit collection specialist promoting all available assistance programs. SELCO also created a special one-time "COVID Electric Relief" assistance program to provide financial aid to qualifying customers affected by the pandemic.
SELCO also fundamentally shifted the ways it does business with its customers through offering virtual energy audits. The virtual option proved to be quite effective and popular among customers. Indeed, once SELCO was able to resume in-person audits, the utility decided to continue offering virtual audits for customers who prefer that option. So far, about 23% of customers are continuing to select the virtual audit option. SELCO is currently tracking ahead of budgeted audits for the year, indicating customers are ready to resume "business as usual" and that improving home efficiency is high on their to-do list.
In addition, the utility ensured that customers had the broadband equipment they needed to stay connected. When SELCO moved to self-install equipment, with rigorous safety protocols in place, it deployed a globally competitive cyclist it happens to have on staff.
"I'm pretty excited about the prospect of being able to take that work-from-home approach with us into the future. I think that customer responsiveness is going to be that much better after this," Pratt said.
Increasing options for customers
Early in the pandemic, the utility's customer service representatives advocated for deposit refunds to assist customers struggling to make payments. The PUD created a new fund, called Job Loss Assistance, to help customers on unemployment during the pandemic. The utility also made significant changes to delinquency processes and late fees, and suspended disconnects and collection efforts for an extended period to help customers. "We made multiple direct calls to our past-due customers to make sure they were aware of assistance funds and arrangement possibilities. We also used email and letter notifications to inform our customers of changes during the pandemic. We utilized social media, our website, and NISC's SmartHub alerts more than we had in the past," Kramer added. She expects the PUD to continue progressively leveraging technology after the pandemic.
In the western Pacific, the
Limtiaco reported that
The utility is conducting surveys, focus groups, and direct conversations with customers to better predict what the "new normal" for customer service should involve. The increase in online customer interaction has remained steady, and Limtiaco said that customer requests for expanded online account services continue on an upward trend.
As a result, the
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