utility customer engagement and collections

Last year, and now into 2021, the perfect storm has formed for utility company collections. Shutoff restrictions and stops are in force all over the country, legally mandated for those customers who have seen their livelihoods vanish due to COVID-19.

There is no doubt that the sacrifices utility companies have made have truly saved huge portions of the population from having to confront a harsh winter without heat or electricity. Businesses all over the country have managed to survive without having their utilities shut off due to non-payment. They’ll be able to hang on until we are truly “back to normal,” and their comebacks will infuse America’s economy.

But within all this good news, utility companies are suffering greatly. By March of 2021, they may be owed as much as 40 billion dollars from residential and business customers.

It’s not entirely clear who will pay this bill. Will the bill be pushed back to utility companies, or will consumers be forced to make up the debt?

“The reality is that someone is going to pay.” – Theodore J. Kury, Director of Energy Studies, University of Florida Utility Research Center.

Customer engagement is more important now than ever. An engaged customer is more likely to pay, which will allow utility companies the same path to a comeback that the rest of the country is sure to experience.

So let’s look at why, and how, we can and should engage with customers to help improve collections. The messaging should be very much about “we”—if engagement is crucial to collections, a shared goal is key to engagement.

#1 – We’re In This Together

One essential and transformative part of the pandemic has been U.S. citizens and companies making sacrifices for the good of the whole. Utility companies have willingly been a part of short-term debt relief so that customers could stay warm, connected, well-lit and most importantly still be able to wash their hands, even when they couldn’t pay their bills.

It’s time to start leveraging that relationship so that it works both ways. Engage your customers on your journey. What has your utility company done to pitch in during COVID-19? Tell the stories of families and businesses who you have helped “keep the lights on.”

While debt forgiveness or service disconnect moratoriums may have been due to state or federal regulations, utility companies have literally not missed a beat. Service and maintenance has been kept to the highest standards.

Engage your customers in your story—because we are all linked through this catastrophic and unexpected year.  Sure, data points help with billing and collections. But you should engage your customers beyond the data that “makes them pay.”

Utility companies are spending massive amounts of time and resources to make sure residential and business clients are getting what they need—whether they are paying for it or not.

Bring your customers into your data track. Show them what you’ve done for them, then utilize that engagement for collections.

#2 – We Are all Mitigating Risk

Engaging customers is never more important than when you are both trying to mitigate risk together. This creates a natural connection and bridge to help with collections.

Make certain that your customers understand your risk journey, and try to partner with them for any payment plans. No one knows “who will have to pay” but if you and your customers are aligned in mitigating each other’s risks, the debt can decrease.

Customers won’t understand the risks utility companies took for their benefit unless we engage with them on this point.

#3 – We All Need an Easy Button

This may be the most potent connection you should have with your customers. You helped them through an unprecedented period of upheaval. Now that things are getting slowly back to normal, it’s crucial to engage with them on this point for better collections.

The question is: how?

The efficacy of mail and email has plummeted in recent years.

It’s time for utility companies to turn to texts.

Consider these statistics:

  • 98% of texts are opened (only 20% of emails)
  • 90% of people open a text within three minutes
  • 45% respond to texts (opposed to 6% for emails)

Collections come from connection—which means that text is the way to go. Consider investing in a business texting app (there are a lot of them, and not very expensive) to start connecting your utility company to your clientele.

Streamlining what happens after the connection – payment – is just as important.  Fintech apps like PayPal, Venmo, and Apple Pay are growing at a meteoric pace for one very important reason: the human need to optimize for efficiency and value.

Utility companies benefit from modernization in that regard.  By providing customers with a payment method that doesn’t drain their energy incentivizes them further to pay on time and in full – and that’s good for you.

After payment, you need to make sure your customers have access to as much information flow as possible, regarding issues with their account, changes to their utility usage, and rate fluctuations.  The single most frustrating thing for your customer to experience is the feeling that they’re not in control.

Tools like Milestone’s eVolve platform solve this by providing powerful information via self-service software like ePortal, which empowers customers to see and adjust every detail regarding their utilities.

#4 We’re Here for Eachother

If you’ve established that two-way, engaged connection, this last focus point can truly engage customers to understand your needs. You have worked with them throughout the entire COVID-19 crisis to keep utility bills from sinking their finances.

Now you can utilize this engagement point to create payment plans and debt reduction strategies that make sense for both the utility company and the consumer.

As we all move past one of the most disastrous times for American business, customer engagement is the key to creating equilibrium. Use these strategies and focus points to bring your utility company back up—after you’ve done so much to help others. 

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 Utility Dive, “Deep Dive,” visited 2.1, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/customers-owe-billions-in-covid-debt-to-their-utilities-and-somebody-has-to/589525/

Energy Central, “Best Practices,” visited 2.1, https://energycentral.com/c/um/six-best-practices-utilities-can-employ-improve-collections-performance

McKinsey, “Getting A Grip On Bad Debt,” visited 2.1. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/electric-power-and-natural-gas/our-insights/getting-a-blgrip-on-bad-debt-practical-steps-to-help-utilities-boost-their-resilience#

PCMag.com, “Businesses, Take Note”, visited 2.1, https://www.pcmag.com/news/businesses-take-note-your-customers-prefer-texts

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