Customer Service

A critical link: Public power steps up to connect customers with assistance

“Community” is not just a feel-good term for annual reports and corporate websites — for public power, it is a core part of the utility’s identity. When a public power utility’s community thrives, so does the utility, and vice versa. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit communities across the U.S., many public power utilities took action to help both their residential customers struggling to pay bills and local businesses facing financial strain.

From offering direct financial relief and grants to serving as a bridge to assistance programs, public power utilities stepped up to do what they always do: keep their communities going.

Neighbors in need

In the early dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Glencoe Light and Power Commission gave the Minnesota town’s 6,000 residents and its businesses an unexpected gift, although utility officials weren’t certain how the move would be received, both by its customers and by other utilities.

GLPC decided in March 2020 to forgive electric bills for a month for its some 2,500 residential and 360 commercial customers, using a portion of a catastrophic reserve fund that commission members had wisely set aside more than 30 years earlier.

“It was established for a big storm or some sort of major emergency,” said Dave Meyer, general manager, who brought the idea to the board. “The fund had been building through the years, and as we were thinking of how to help our customers, we decided that if this pandemic wasn’t an emergency, then what was? It was a big decision, but it was the right thing to do.”

Meyer said the commission moved quickly so that people would get some immediate financial relief, but also so that local businesses and families could have time to plan for the way the pandemic might affect them long-term.

“So many lives were being disrupted, and our customers are our friends who own businesses and restaurants and live next door,” he said. “We were all beginning to see how this was going to have a devastating effect on them. We wanted to get them help early to give them a break and time to work on a path forward.”

Budgetary issues and concern about spending the some $410,000 from the emergency fund for the lost revenue also was a worry at Glencoe.

“I had a lot of concerns about this being perceived the wrong way,” said Meyer. “Ultimately, the commission approved the move, and it was roundly applauded throughout the community.”

Community members thanked Glencoe officials and employees with calls and notes to the utility office and words of appreciation as they ran into each other on the sidewalks, in shops and restaurants, and at church services and schools.

“I didn’t really hear any negative response. We got cards and calls, and our employees got comments from customers in the street,” he said. “It was the right decision. And it’s what public power utilities do.”

A lifeline for small businesses

New Ulm Public Utilities Commission, located about 45 minutes from Glencoe in south central Minnesota, suspended all penalties and shutoffs through the worst months of the pandemic, as did many public power utilities in Minnesota, and is working with customers on arrears to allow them to spread payments over the next 12 months, according to Kris Manderfeld, utilities director.

In addition, through the city of New Ulm, businesses were offered three rounds of small business grants. The first round was $2,500, and the second was $1,500. Through the first two rounds, the city has given out more than $260,000. Manderfeld said the third round of grants is under way and is offering $2,000 to qualifying businesses.

There were also small business loans offered up to $10,000, and the utility is also offering businesses an opportunity to skip three consecutive utility bills and spread the payment out over six or 12 months.

“We are trying to work with our customers as much as we can and help them find the resources that are available to them not only through the utility and city, but also through the state,” Manderfeld said.

Making the connection

CPS Energy in San Antonio, one of the country’s biggest municipally owned natural gas and electric utilities, took action early in the pandemic to assess customer needs.

“Not only was San Antonio hit hard by the virus with the number of cases, this region depends on the hospitality industry, and those businesses really suffered. The unemployment rate here went from 3% to over 7% [in summer and fall 2020],” said Rudy Garza, who heads customer engagement at CPS Energy. “The pandemic was a huge blow here, and we needed to respond.”

In June 2020, CPS Energy staff started making hundreds of phone calls each day to customers. The calls were a way for the utility to check on customers and see if CPS Energy could assist them with their bill or help connect them with financial assistance and other support services.

The utility used some two dozen customer service representatives along with members of its staff community engagement team to make calls from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The work was connected to an advertising and public relations campaign that promoted the effort and educated customers about their options.

Garza said the utility has so far made some 66,000 calls and linked customers to more than $20.3 million in support.

“This is what public power is about,” said Garza. “We wanted to call our customers to check on them and see how we could help, and the response has been incredible.”

Customers thanked the utility for “lifting a burden” and making a connection to services “that didn’t even involve the electric bill.”

“My family has really suffered during COVID-19, and we didn’t know where to turn,” one customer said in an email, while another said they were “so grateful to CPS Energy for offering to help. No one else has done anything like this.”

Garza said that through the calls the utility encouraged customers to be proactive with programs that could help them with finances and bill-paying, and the calls let them see the utility in a different light and more positively. Another customer noted that they were reluctant to answer the call because they worried it was about an overdue bill. “What I received instead was an offer to help,” the customer said, thanking the utility.

Employees who made calls also reported they had a better sense of what customers were going through and felt a connection to them, which can be key to customer care.

Meeting the need

In Kansas City, Kansas, the Board of Public Utilities put in place and promoted a battery of supports for its some 65,000 customers, including $9 million in direct aid from federal coronavirus relief funds, which included utility assistance, along with a hardship payment program that provided $96,000 in aid and a separate support program through social service agencies that passed on about $100,000 to customers needing assistance. It bolstered and promoted its traditional payment arrangement and flex pay programs, too, and suspended disconnections for several months.

David E. Mehlhaff, chief communications officer at Kansas City BPU, said the utility also serves a high-need, diverse population that was hit hard by the pandemic.

“We have a financially challenged community to begin with, so our utility understands that we have to go above and beyond to help customers who might be struggling to pay their bills. We have always offered more payment arrangements than the average utility, but under these circumstances we felt we had to do even more. We are very different than a private, for-profit utility.”

Like the leaders at CPS, those at BPU believed that in many cases programs to help were already in place, but customers needed information about them and encouragement to get the aid for which they were eligible.

“About one-quarter of our customers live below the poverty level and are eligible for various support programs, and we hope they take the steps to get it,” said Mehlhaff. “The key thing is that they have to ask for help — and they should get to us early, before they get in trouble. We tell them to contact us so we can help them be successful.”

He noted that a combination of factors, including customers struggling to pay their bills, has meant the utility has had to cut corners, and it has developed a 2021 budget that cuts expenses by $25 million. He said those cuts are not only necessary, but they also send the right message to customers who are struggling.