Lessons Learned from COVID-19: How Utilities Will Support and Manage Customers During and After a Crisis

Posted to VertexOne in the Customer Care Group
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Michelle Gillum's picture
Director of Marketing, VertexOne

Michelle Gillum is the Director of Marketing at VertexOne. In this role, Michelle specializes in driving marketing strategy and execution in the utility space. Michelle oversees VertexOne's...

  • Member since 2019
  • 3 items added with 9,739 views
  • Jun 5, 2020

This item is part of the Utility Customer Care - Spring 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

“Always expect the unexpected,” they say, but could we really have fully anticipated a crisis like COVID-19? After all, a global pandemic on this scale doesn’t happen every year—thankfully. As providers of essential services, every utility has contingency and continuity plans in case of an unexpected (but eventually inevitable) natural disaster. COVID-19, however, has presented a unique set of challenges and concerns.

For one thing, a pandemic causes a customer to wonder: Will I have clean water and power tomorrow? Most natural disasters affect a community over a finite period, whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has (and continues to have) no discernible event horizon. True, a major storm or fire requires clean-up and rebuilding of affected infrastructure, but with the continued spread of COVID-19, not to mention shelter-in-place requirements to contain it, customers are anxious as to whether a utility can effectively continue operations. And of course, this crisis is accompanied by an economic recession, which inevitably affects a large portion of customers’ ability to pay.

One thing is certain, though, and that’s the fact that another crisis will come along. Whatever it may be, there are some lessons COVID-19 can teach utilities about successfully supporting and managing their customers during a crisis.

Lesson #1: Manage customer sentiment with proactive communication

If there was ever a service considered “essential” during a crisis, it would be utilities. Providing water, electricity and gas ranks right up there with stocking the local grocery store. However, crises make citizens uneasy and uncertain as to what to expect from their utility providers. That’s why it is important to be proactive in utilities’ communications with customers, to let them know what to expect, that their service will continue, and that you’ve got their back.

Proactive communication is key in shaping community sentiment, cooperation and in containing issues during a crisis. By taking a customer-focused approach in spreading urgent information, utilities can foster community engagement and a general calm. Thankfully, technology allows far more efficient communication with customers than even before. With multiple digital channels available—including social media, email, SMS text messages, and automated voice services—utilities can provide customers with up-to-date information in near-real time, using whatever channel customers most prefer.

What type of information should utilities provide via these channels?

  • Service availability, continuity, and resilience: “Don’t worry. Your water is safe, your electricity will be on, and your gas supply will continue uninterrupted.”
  • Standing with you during hard times: Suspension of automatic disconnects and late fees
  • Fully available support using remote capabilities (i.e., live billing and technical support)
  • Promoting website and customer portal for up-to-date information, self-service, and problem reporting
  • E-newsletters/emails with clear instructions for accessing support, as well as sharing positive news about the utility’s activities/contributions to community in time of crisis
  • Promotion of available customer assistance programs
  • Proactive calls to set-up payment arrangements when missed payments detected
  • Assuring customers that trucks can still roll when necessary—and with appropriate precautions to safeguard you and your family

Utilities can also leverage other organizations to help spread the word about their operating status, including city governments and neighborhood associations. The most important thing, though, is to get the word out that the utility will continue operating and providing their service.

Lesson #2: Providing remote capabilities is key to preventing disruption

Social distancing recommendations and shelter-in-place orders may not apply to the next crisis, but for COVID-19, they necessitated that tens of millions of normally office-bound employees suddenly work from home. Across the country, a massive number of offices and call centers fell silent. Yet, as essential services, utilities must continue to provide service and support, whether or not the office is open.

A utility’s business continuity hinges its staff being able to complete their work remotely without disruption in service. While remote work has slowly taken hold in most other industries, it simply hasn’t been a priority or mandate for utilities. As a result, many utilities had to scramble in order to maintain a semblance of operations-as-usual during the crisis.

To be prepared for this and the next crisis, utilities must adequately equip themselves with the infrastructure, tools and processes to allow staff members to continue working from wherever they may be—home, office, or call center. Some of the basics steps to perform (preferably before a crisis hits) are to:

  • Procure and issue laptops/notebooks, or have them ready for quick deployment
  • Extend and fortify the organization’s network to include external (but secure) endpoints
  • Ensure employees have reliable network connections at home or other remote location
  • Establish secure, encrypted connections through virtual private network (VPN) software
  • Utilize VoIP technology for seamless, secure customer communications
  • Install video meeting apps to conduct and participate in remote online meetings
  • Ensure all affected employees are adequately trained on new technology
  • Deploy enterprise CIS/CSS applications with a consistent user experience to minimize disruption when moving between desktop, browser, and mobile platforms

A public health crisis may have forced the remote work issue this year, but even utilities now see remote work as both possible and productive. But the potential applications for remote work go beyond customer support and operations. For example, in the midst of the pandemic lockdown, our VertexOne team performed the industry’s first 100% remote “go live” of a major utility CIS and CSS implementation. With sufficient infrastructure and training, even huge technology projects can be done remotely end to end—from collaboration, design and implementation to testing, training, go live and support.

All this remote work capability, however, does no good if the remote team doesn’t feel connected and part of their organization. Regular communication with your internal staff is as important during a crisis as it is with your customers. Your crisis communications plan—even your ordinary day-to-day plan—should include:

  • Regular audio and/or video interactions with team members
  • Weekly videos from company leadership (live streamed or recorded)
  • Company-wide email updates, and
  • Recognition of employee contributions—especially during a crisis

Beyond remote workers themselves, the crisis may accelerate the adoption of hands-off computing and data collection infrastructure. If utilities ever needed an incentive to move to automatic meter infrastructure (AMI) and other smart meter technology, COVID-19 has provided it. Such devices reduce utility workers’ exposure to the virus, catastrophic weather conditions or other hazards. They also significantly reduce labor costs over the long haul. The same goes for utilities looking to move at least part of their IT infrastructures to the cloud. Besides the reduction in capital expenses, by turning over IT infrastructure procurement, management and maintenance to a cloud or managed service provider, a utility keeps its staff out of harm’s way.

Lesson #3: Minimize the impact of crisis-related rate increases to those most affected

The pandemic’s effect on utility revenues will inevitably lead to rate increases, which are necessary to offset changes in demand, not to mention the impact of the recession the crisis brings along in its wake. With rising unemployment comes a reduced ability to pay, even for those with excellent payment histories. This results in not only financial hardship but also the general fear, anxiety and uncertainly brought on by the crisis itself.

To reduce the financial and psychological burdens of those affected, utilities should first consider relaxing typical collections processes and/or suspending automatic service disconnections that would ordinarily result from a customer’s non-payment. For example, the utility could issue a temporary moratorium on service disconnections and a prioritization on reconnections. Of course, these policy changes should be proactively communicated to customers—see Lesson #1—to reduce their angst.

In addition, utilities should make customers aware of the numerous customer aid programs available to those in distress, especially during and following a crisis. Some of these are sponsored by the utilities themselves, others by local, state or federal governments, still others by philanthropic organization. Whether a program subsidizes, reduces, suspends or forgives a customer’s past-due payments, utilities should prioritize and actively promote these aid programs to those that have been most negatively impacted by the crisis. After all, most customers would rather pay what they can with a little assistance to make up the rest, rather than pay nothing at all.

We should note that during times of stress, even customers able to pay their bills can fall behind—which makes it an ideal time to encourage use of digital self-service payment options. Utilities can proactively promote these options as not only as fast, simple and convenient but also far safer than other methods. For example, during COVID-10, paying online is far easier and safer than handling paper checks or worrying about social distancing in a lobby service line, a walk-up window, or even an automated kiosk. By keeping these options in the forefront of a customer’s mind, utilities can actually increase the likelihood of timely payments, making self-service and automatic payments valuable tools in a utility’s revenue assurance and collections.

COVID-19 isn’t the last crisis we’ll face, but it can prepare us for the next one

With a bit of luck and proper intervention, COVID-19 will soon be behind us. But as is always the case in the natural world, we’ll face another challenge sooner or later, and another one after that. Utilities will have to provide excellent service then, too.

The nature of the next crisis will be different—perhaps a hurricane, earthquake, flood, wildfire, chemical spill, or something we’ve never before anticipated. However, if we only heed them, the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will help ensure utilities can successfully support and manage their customers during any crisis.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 1, 2020

Utilities can also leverage other organizations to help spread the word about their operating status, including city governments and neighborhood associations. The most important thing, though, is to get the word out that the utility will continue operating and providing their service.

This is a great point-- and it's of course especially challenging when different people get their information from different places. Do you see utilities doing specific outreach on a neighborhood level ahead of any potential crisis to survey and determine what methods are best? Some users might get the information they need right away via email or mobile notifications, others may not have those as regular parts of their habits and need other methods (even if it's through something like a neighborhood community watch organization?). 

Michelle Gillum's picture
Thank Michelle for the Post!
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