Powering Strong Communities

People Shift: How the Pandemic Changed Utility Customer Service Practices

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 California’s businesses, Roseville’s Electric Utility quickly transitioned economic development efforts in the fast-growing area northeast of Sacramento to business assistance and retention. “We wanted to ensure they could maneuver through a challenging time and be successful on the other side of it,” said Erin Frye, the utility’s communications and marketing manager.

Recognizing that “success” might look different, Roseville worked with regional partners to market the utility’s competitive advantages — lower rates, the nimbleness a smaller utility offers, economic development support, and a proactive approach of working across city departments and regional agencies.

“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. Roseville doubled some rebates and promoted direct installs to provide long-term benefits. Through its Reopen Energy Smart program, the public power utility increased rebates for commercial customers for smart thermostats, HVAC tune-ups, LED lighting, and efficient food service equipment. To date, more than 40 commercial customers in Roseville have received over $287,000 in rebates under the program.

Bill Chaplin, who oversees the utility’s key accounts and economic development efforts, added that remote work enabled Roseville to better listen to and interact with customers. “Being able to pivot quickly and react to changes is probably the biggest ‘lesson learned’ that will stick around,” he said.  

On top of efforts to connect with commercial customers, the utility further enhanced its relationships with other local agencies. Roseville worked with local entities to help distribute food to people in need, which proved to be an effective way to promote assistance programs and identify new opportunities for residents.

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 Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] are now in demand,” Frye said. “We also recognized that we needed to change our municipal code to better serve our community.”

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. Roseville learned that customers wanted more information on preparedness, and they wanted digital information in real-time through both email and text messaging.

Forging faster connections

At the pandemic’s outset, Shrewsbury Electric & Cable Operations in Massachusetts quickly realized the benefits of enabling customer service representatives to work remotely. It dramatically increased outage responsiveness — so much so that the utility now plans for representatives to take their equipment home when inclement weather that could result in outages is forecast, according to Jackie Pratt, the utility’s director of integrated resources and communications. “We’re now able to turn up our customer service staff within minutes because no one has to drive into work,” she said.

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 March 2020.

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. Patrick Collins delivered modems across Shrewsbury’s 21.7 square miles daily. At a delivery pace of one every 10 minutes, “I think he was beating our trucks — and it was an entirely fossil-free approach,” noted Pratt. 

“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

In Oregon, the Central Lincoln People’s Utility District benefited from a change in schedules (to a four-day, 10-hour schedule) that began in March 2020. McKenzie Kramer, the PUD’s customer service supervisor, said that many customers appreciate the ability to connect in the early mornings and later evenings. “Our phone will ring at 7 a.m., and, now that our building is open to the public again, we had a customer in the building within the first five minutes,” she said.

Central Lincoln followed health guidelines to ensure that its customer service representatives could work safely at the office, and customer service appointments became required. The utility established a dedicated customer service email address instead of having customers send online inquiries through a webmaster, made the email prominent on its website, and incorporated the option into its phone message. “Previously, email wasn’t something we used very often. But we saw an enormous increase in email communications from our customers, so that will definitely stay after the pandemic is over,” Kramer said.

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 Guam Power Authority maximized its existing online account infrastructure and reprioritized internal projects to further improve them. “We pivoted our efforts to transition customers to our online systems, modernized our paper-dependent service request process, added drive-through payment services, and expanded customer communication modes to include social media direct messaging,” said Tricee P. Limtiaco, the utility’s assistant general manager of administration.

Limtiaco reported that Guam’s in-person customer interactions are still at half of pre-pandemic levels. While the utility was surprised to see telephone payment traffic decrease, Limtiaco noted that online transactions, including payments through an improved payment e-portal, email correspondence, and social media direct messaging, remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic conditions.

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 Guam Power Authority is predicting that full online utility account management will be a reality within the next five to 10 years. It means that “customers will be able to view their real-time energy consumption, power on/off key household appliances and lighting, charge electric vehicles, pay their utility bill, and conduct energy audits,” she said.