Utility assistance programs: A third-party portal can help build a greater community presence

This information provided by Smart Cities Council Compassionate Cities.
Mon, 2016-04-11 16:13 -- Compassionate C...

By Margaret Bellon

In order to maximize the benefits of a customer assistance program, utilities are looking closer at community involvement. In the article Utility Assistance Programs: Maximizing Outcomes for Both Customers & Utilities we discussed how a utility can increase revenue and decrease bad debt, increase access for low income customers to vital resources (water, electricity and gas), decrease the amount of delinquent customers, and also enhance the utility’s presence and reputation in their community. The traditional model of utility customer assistance places the utility at the center, providing assistance and collecting donations all within their organization. However, utilities are learning that they can expand their impact in communities by working with third-party administration technology.

Make more assistance available to those in need
Perhaps unexpectedly, the first way a utility can expand their impact in their community is the weather. More extreme weather patterns and natural disasters are causing more renters and homeowners alike to be in need of assistance beyond meeting their monthly bill. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods can force a utility customer to have to make investments in new plumbing and home electrical updates. Without these investments, their access to electricity, gas and water becomes severely limited. There are ways for customers to get assistance for this kind of traumatic event; programs like LIHEAP (Low Income Energy Assistance Program) that are set up for this purpose. These types of funds are typically administered through a third party; donation funds are sent to a third party, who will interface with agencies to send the funds to the right place and ensure that the customers are eligible for funds. When administering these funds through a third-party portal, especially in a significant disaster, a utility can help customers access additional agency funds and charitable donations. The community and local organizations have a way of helping those in need that is already set up and directly focused on assistance. With this method, the overhead costs of providing aid to those in need will not be affected during disasters, increasing the amount of funds available.

Build relationships with local agencies
Next, a utility can maximize the benefits of a customer assistance program by building strong relationships with local agencies. Since these agencies are interacting with customers across the utility’s service area, building strong relationships can increase a utility’s presence in a community and also help even more customers. One way to do this is to streamline internal processes within the utility and with the third-party administrator. The agency usually has access to utility-specific funds to pledge towards a customer bill, in addition to other funds that may not necessarily be designated for utility bill-pay. In order to incentivize additional funds to be allocated by the agencies, the utility can do work on their side to make their internal processes more efficient. In addition, a strong relationship can be built with the agencies by providing workshops and learning opportunities for agencies. The utility can educate agencies on energy saving tips or water conservation strategies that will help customers save money on their monthly bill. Agencies can then educate customers on these methods when they come in for assistance. The agencies can even incorporate energy and water conservation into their policies.  As part of the utility- agency relationship, agencies can then provide feedback to the utility on opportunities for improving the assistance program through their learnings from direct interactions with customers. As utilities look to improve their overall customer experience, this will be an important component for their strategy.

Consider distributed energy and solar options
Lastly, a utility can increase their presence in their community by further aligning their customer assistance program with their overall business objectives and customer demands. One alternative way to provide aid for customers is to include a distributed energy resources (DER) option into customer assistance programs. A utility can set up policies to administer assistance funds that help customers make investments in residential solar or other technologies. Instead of providing one-time bill assistance during hardship, a utility can help a customer become less dependent on their utility for the foreseeable future. A utility may even look beyond the customer, to landlords. By setting up programs for landlords to invest in DER, the burden of paying electric bills is removed from the customers altogether. Landlords would benefit from a program like this to attract renters, have a larger community presence, and differentiate themselves in the market. Taking this idea even further, expanding the customer assistance program to help develop community solar can engage the community and even promote local jobs to help with the installation.

With customer assistance programs, utilities have the opportunity to make a large difference for customers who cannot afford to pay their energy bill. Leveraging a third-party administrator facilitates a stronger relationship between the community and the utility, and creates a greater impact. Whether the customer recently suffered home damage from a natural disaster, or is given the opportunity to reduce their electric bill by adopting DERs, there are many ways to help.

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Margaret Bellon is an energy and utilities consultant at West Monroe Partners, a Council Associate Partner.  Margaret helps utilities streamline their processes and improve operations, while also reducing cost and impact on the environment.

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