More money, fewer shutoffs: How one utility made it happen

By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

There are only a few ways utilities reach out to customers in a material and attention-grabbing manner. One is through the bill, and not everybody cuddles up to that. For utilities struggling with slow- or no-pay accounts, Fred Angel has an idea or two.

Angel is the customer operations administrator for the Chesterfield County Department of Utilities, a water provider in Virginia serving 96,500 people. In 1999, the utility was juggling an average of 555 delinquent-account shutoffs each month. “We knew our cutoffs were high,” Angel says.

On top of that, delinquent accounts posed a number of problems. One was a safety issue for utility technicians, who would collect payments from people in the form of cash or a check. “Then, the rest of the day, a utility worker was riding around with cash or checks in the truck. The money could get lost, stolen, or you could have a robbery, and the utility worker could get injured,” Angel explains.

On top of that, workers were often reconnecting service in the dark because customers would call for restoration after hours. That added extra risk, and extra expense, to the job. When the utility had to reconnect service on evenings and weekends, Angel reports, they would “call out workers who’d already gone home for the day. It was an overhead issue.”

Sure, customers had warning that their service would be disconnected for non-payment. The utility was sending a termination notice two days after the original bill’s due date, then going out 15 days later to turn off the pipe.

“I think we recognized we weren’t doing justice to our customers in term of how we were communicating,” Angel admits. Plus, the utility was looking to increase collections, not service shutoffs. It was time for a new approach.

Ready, aim, talk
Managers at Chesterfield Utilities decided not to communicate their new collections program to everyone. They targeted only those customers who had late- or no-pay history. “People who are delinquent almost always call,” Angel says. “We knew we could talk to them on the phone.”

For the few late-pay customers who didn’t call, the utility took other action. Special on-bill messaging explained the new collections policy. So did a bulletin on the utility’s website.

To make sure the customers who needed it heard about the new policies, Angel and his team carefully crafted a succinct but thorough script explaining that the utility would no longer collect money in the field and that there would be no more after-hours service restorations. In addition, the utility added a last-minute, hand-delivered door-hanger that advised customers their service would be cut off in two days if no payment was made.

If utility workers did wind up disconnecting service, they left a second door tag advising customers that payment had to be made at the utility’s main office, and no one could come out to reconnect service after regular business hours.

Consistency was a key to communication success for this utility. Every customer service representative in the call center, every technician in the field and every counter clerk in the utility office followed the same brief script with delinquent customers. “I didn’t want someone on the telephone saying one thing and someone in the office saying something else,” Angel notes.

Because of the scripting, the message could be delivered quickly and efficiently. Utility staff began employing the script with collection-problem customers two months before the new policy went into effect. Angel reports it only added about 10 seconds to average call times in the call center and, therefore, didn’t significantly impact wait times or service to other customers.

Communication pays off
The new door tags and consistent messaging paid off for Chesterfield utilities. There was a 50 percent increase in foot traffic into the office each month. Drop-box payments jumped by 25 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of service cutoffs for non-payment dropped almost 30 percent. The percent of customers disconnected each month dropped from 0.67 percent to 0.47 percent. And, debt write-offs dropped 82 percent.

Best of all, the program paid for itself, despite the added workload from hand-delivering door-hangers alerting customers to the impending disconnection of service. That’s because Angel and his team added fees to cover the cost of delivering those notices and, if necessary, disconnecting and reconnecting service.

Between the communication and new fees, previously delinquent customers started to take notice. Angel reports that the utility still is seeing increases in the number of successful collections without service cutoffs. “By delivering courtesy notices to customers, we did get them to come into the office and pay their bills,” he concludes.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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