High bill communications is a hot topic (pun intended) for utilities everywhere. Extreme temperatures have impacted billing communications in a big way as scorching summers and frigid winters hit customers’ energy bills. How your utility communicates seasonal costs directly impacts customer satisfaction.
In Questline Digital’s webinar, “Strategies for High Bill Communications,” our expert speakers, Morgan Kriley with Duquesne Light Company and Shantel Johnson with Entergy, shared insights and advice from their own experience with high bill communications.
Become a Trusted Partner for Your Utility’s Customers
Kriley shared early in the discussion that Duquesne Light Company’s (DLC) focus was on being a “Trusted Energy Partner.” With this goal in mind, DLC set out to help its customers with the mission to:
- Provide good value
- Charge fair prices
- Be honest and transparent
DLC’s approach to assisting customers with high bills came down to three goals:
- Identify the main factors driving a high bill
- Utilize customer insights and persona groups
- Develop multichannel campaigns to educate customers
By homing in on these goals, DLC developed four targeted approaches to assisting customers:
“Under Pennsylvania’s Electric Choice Act, customers can choose or shop for a supplier that provides their electricity, which impacts the supply portion of their bill,” Kriley explained. “While it’s not mandatory for customers to shop for a supplier, they can choose the company based on factors such as savings, clean energy sources, and fixed and variable rates.”
As an electric distribution company, DLC is neutral as to whether a customer wants to shop for suppliers. Through its research, though, DLC discovered that 80% of its customers were paying above the default service rate. With these insights, DLC identified an opportunity to initiate conversations about customer choice and educate customers about their options and the impact on their monthly bills.
DLC communicated this information through:
- Website tutorials, videos and FAQs
- Targeted email communications
- Social and display ad campaigns
- Newsletter features
Changing energy rates
In June 2022, DLC had two energy rate increases occur that impacted customers. The utility knew customers would be comparing their bills to the previous year’s bills and wanted to get ahead of the discussion.
“The honesty and transparency piece played a major role in this campaign,” Kriley said. DLC created web resources, such as a website banner and resource hub, in addition to developing social media posts and newsletter features to explain the increased rates. Each resource directed customers to a link that explained why energy prices were rising and what customers could do to help lower their costs.
Energy efficiency management
Through recent research, DLC learned that half of its customers actively monitor their electric usage in the hopes of reducing their usage. “They’re closely monitoring their thermostat and using lights and electronics very cautiously,” Kriley said. “Customers really want to know how to best use their energy and when.”
Kriley shared that DLC consistently shares educational materials with customers about energy efficiency and energy savings. In a recent survey, a DLC customer specifically asked, “How can I make my home more efficient for the least amount of money?”
The utility promotes its energy efficiency content in social media posts, newsletters and targeted emails. Additionally, customers receive a usage email each week that lets them compare their usage from the week prior and provides a projected view of their monthly usage.
To assist with these initiatives, DLC also provided free energy efficiency kits to residential customers. The kit included LED light bulbs and night lights.
High bill management
As high bills occurred in full force, DLC began seeing more calls to its call centers from customers inquiring about their bills. Kriley shared that the driver of DLC’s high bill communications was empathy, followed by education and action-oriented steps.
“In this email campaign, DLC recognized its responsibility to our customers and, again, utilized the ‘Trust Energy Partner’ message to show customers that we were transparent about the changing energy rates,” Kriley said. “We wanted to provide customers with valuable strategies to manage their current bill and reduce their usage for future bills.”
DLC provided the same resources to customers in a self-serve channel. This gave customers the opportunity to freely find answers and solutions in their own time. “This campaign was a testament to the importance of reaching the right customer at the right time,” Kriley says.
Stepping Up Your High Bill Communications Strategies
Johnson shared ways in which Entergy was taking steps to assist residential customers who may see high bills during summer months in the Southeast. The utility developed a focus and motto for its high bill work: “Temps are up. Costs are up. So we’re stepping up.”
“Our customer strategy leaders gathered a large group of us together to ideate programs that would make a meaningful difference to customers during this time,” Johnson shared.
In addition to its usual bill assistance programs, Entergy began offering new solutions for high summer bills, including:
- Late fee credits
- Moratorium on disconnects
- $10 million in donations
- Credit card fee credits
- Energy efficiency events
- Early security deposit returns
The above services differed slightly based on what service area customers were in, as Entergy serves Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The programs were nuanced based on the customers’ needs as well as the state regulatory environment.
One of Entergy’s most popular programs was created from $10 million in shareholder donations. This was a one-time, $150 bill credit for qualifying customers. To qualify, customers must have had a total household income of up to 250% of the federal poverty level. This was a part of the targeting criteria that Entergy used to ensure the utility reached the right customers with the right messages. Entergy also partnered with local non-profits, including the United Way, to help distribute those funds.
The online application process for this opened at 9 a.m. on launch day and by 4 p.m. all of the funds had been distributed. To avoid any surprises, customers were aware that this was on a first-come, first-served basis. This was a successful program for Entergy and spoke to the need of its communities.
All hands on deck
For the strategy and execution of its programs, Johnson explained, “This was an all-hands-on-deck effort. I was seven weeks into the job when this call was made, and we gathered together to talk about what programs might be offered and discuss the marketing strategy to reach customers.”
Entergy also implemented customer surveys that are conducted each week to a random selection of 30,000 customers. The purpose of these surveys is to find out what messages and programs are resonating with customers. Additionally, the utility has done mass-marketing efforts to spread the word about its programs, including producing a commercial to play during the New Orleans Saints’ NFL games.
“The goal overall was to drive awareness of the new solutions that we offered to customers during this difficult time,” Johnson said.
Entergy utilized many direct-to-customer channels, such as email, phone calls and text messaging to reach customers. A part of Entergy’s email campaign messaging was to reiterate the new solutions for high summer bills. The utility’s emails performed exceedingly well with a near-54% open rate — well above Entergy’s average 35% open rate, Johnson shared.
Additionally, as programs continue to be rolled out, Entergy ensures its call center representatives are well-informed of the programs and services. The utility sends near-daily updated talking points to its call center with the latest information on programs for each state.
Collaboration is Key for Successful High Bill Communications Strategies
A critical element for both Duquesne Light Company and Entergy’s strategies was keeping an open line of communication, not only between utility employees but between the utility and its customers. Kriley and Johnson both emphasized the importance of honesty and transparency throughout all high bill communications.
“Collaboration is always key as we embark on crisis communication strategies like these,” Johnson says.