Providing Utility Customers with Agile Post-COVID-19 Communications That Add Value
The past year and a half have presented utility customers with unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. Economic turmoil led to bills remaining unpaid, utilities ceasing shutoffs, and more.
However, the world finally appears on the precipice of normality once again. But the transition back to normal will not be the flip of a switch. For utilities the coming weeks and months will represent a critical time in terms of how they communicate with utility customers.
At the peak of the pandemic, U.S. utilities largely stopped sending communications like collections and shut-off notices. But these communications are getting turned back on.
The community-focused utility must take advantage of this opportunity to communicate compassionately but also effectively, to help its customers through this transition.
Post-COVID-19 Communications to Keep in Mind
With workers sent home and stuck without an option to earn a living, many Americans needed multiple lifelines to be sent their way. From the utility perspective, the best way to help was to eliminate collections notices, shutoff warnings, and similar economic stressors.
Utility shutoff moratoriums aren’t uncommon. The availability of energy is necessary for public safety during bitter winter months, even when people have amassed debts with the utility companies that they aren’t in a position to pay off.
During the pandemic, ensuring people could retain power was even more important, especially as work went digital, schools operated remotely, and people quarantined at home.
The transition of re-establishing past due and utility shutoff notices will be jarring to many households, so it’s important for utilities to be:
- thorough in explaining the situation
- empathetic in how the transition is handled
- proactive in finding ways to work with, not against, customers
For example, when sending the first past due notice in more than a year, utilities should include the following:
- Attach all necessary payment plan options,
- Explain how to make the necessary arrangements to pay the debt and avoid shutoff,
- Include options for contacting the utility to discuss what is understandably a stressful event
Ensuring These Post-COVID-19 Utility Communications are Agile
Just as importantly, utilities must use all the tools they have to ensure these post-COVID-19 communications are agile.
Inventory of Communications
First, start by evaluating where you stand today. Doing so requires a thorough inventory of all communications, content themes, and delivery methods currently in use and actively planned.
This process will help you accurately identify communications that need to be reviewed and refreshed considering this new world we’re facing.
The industry is in unchartered waters, so you must remain open to feedback, so you can stay nimble and responsive to customer needs.
If a particular plan of attack is proving ineffective or is pushing customers away, the quick-change-management process must be employed to adapt.
Prioritize Critical Data
Part of your communication evaluation process should include bringing together your relevant teams to identify what data you may need to include in these critical communications.
You want to ensure the customer is likely to fill out those data fields without getting overwhelmed by too many questions, and you don’t want to spend time and resources collecting more data than you have use for. Figure out what’s important to your CCM process and prioritize that.
Streamline Customer Communication Management
The process of reestablishing these utility customer communications is going to be significant, so you want to make sure you’re doing so in the most effective and optimal way.
As noted, you’re going to be doing an evaluation of your customer communications and potentially adjust your strategy, so ensure the communication management process is streamlined to allow for swift execution of unexpected changes.
It’s now more important than ever, to ensure that your communications are not overlooked.
Every customer is different in terms of how responsive they are to different media, whether digital or physical, so be sure to offer multiple channels: email, mobile app, web portal, physical mail, phone calls, etc.
For example, you may have been used to customers responding more to physical mail, but research has found that due to the safety and convenience of digital billing, customer adoption increased during the pandemic - the click-to-open rate on e-bills increased 53% from 2019 to 2020.
As you offer omnichannel communications, it's critical to ensure that the messaging remains consistent in look and feel and gets updated based on action taken by the customer.
The more you can personalize messaging to each customer, the better.
One study found a 22% increase in open rate for email newsletters when personalized compared with not personalized!
The next step to enhance the way you communicate with utility customers today
You’ll only have one opportunity to transition back to sending these important outreach communications, so it’s imperative to make sure you do it right. If you fumble this opportunity, you risk:
- Creating more communication costs,
- Pushing away your customers when they need your help the most, and
- Losing out on potential opportunities to solidify the utility-customer relationship in a way that could benefit your programs for many years to come.
Because of how much is at stake, you may consider bringing on experts who can guide you through this process.
In particular, partnering with a CCM vendor like Doxim that offers a central hub for customer communications management that helps to streamline messaging across different delivery channels.
CCM experts can help you make sure this sensitive transition in the utility-customer relationship goes smoothly, successfully, and sets you up to remain a trusted ally moving forward.
Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Orlando FL, by way of Washington DC. He studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia before diving into the world of federal energy policy.
Today he runs Chester Energy and Policy LLC and publishes his blog at ChesterEnergyandPolicy.com in which he shares news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy and energy technology. You can also see Matt’s work on energycentral.com where he serves as a Community Manage with a utility industry focus.
Matt is writing a series of guest blogs for Doxim, focusing on paperless billing and digital communication in utilities.
For daily quick hits on energy and utility topics, you can follow him on Twitter at @ChesterEnergy.