Exploring a Call to Action on Arrears Management Programs

I have been writing the customer service column for Electric Light and Power now for over seven years on topics ranging from how to provide amazing customer service experiences to instruction on offering chat services and using metrics to effectively manage customer service processes.

Occasionally I hear from readers on these topics regarding to their reaction to the content.  But I must admit, the response to this latest series on arrears management programs was notable in regards to the high number of inquiries and comments that I received. This topic really seemed to resonate with readers. To that end, I decided to pen one more article on the topic, which really gets to moving arrears management programs from talk to action.

As I shared in previous columns, arrears management programs can provide a win-win solution for customers, utilities and regulatory agencies. The earlier columns explored building a business case for arrears management, a business framework for constructing and offering arrears management and best practices in arrears management programs.

Arrears management programs are defined as a financial assistance program for low-income customers with overdue utility bills. The basic concept is that customers enrolled in an AMP who make the required affordable payments are rewarded by having their arrears forgiven.

Arrears management programs are still a bit of a novelty in the utility industry. In fact, a review of the most recent American Gas Association/ Edison Electric Institute Data Source reveals only 10 utilities offer arrears management programs (AMPs).

Others are showing increased interest. Charles Harak, senior attorney for the National Consumer Law Center, which is a nationally recognized low income advocate, indicated he is in active discussions with two utilities about the potential of offering arrears management programs in their jurisdictions.

In this final, bonus column, I am exploring the call to action. Specifically, I want to explore how utilities, regulators and consumer advocates can advance the discussion and action on arrears management programs.

Consumer Advocates

            Consumer advocates are in an excellent position to advance the discussion on arrears management programs. They can voice the benefits of these programs and offer personal testimony about how they integrate with other valued services such as energy efficiency, budget counseling and discount utility rates.

Advocate groups should look for opportunities to ask for discussion and exploration of arrears management programs. Multiple advocacy groups working together can help to amplify the message and push to convene discussions or design workshops.

Regulatory Bodies

            Regulatory organizations and leaders should consider informally opening discussions with key stakeholders on arrears management programs. Clearly having conversations with utilities about the possibility, implications and business aspects would be appropriate.

            When the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities explored arrears forgiveness programs, they started by commissioning pilots where experience and learnings could be created. They also hosted technical sessions to explore with utilities and stakeholders all the aspects of expanding AMPs, and offering the programs in a more automated fashion.

This type of systematic approach makes sense. It allows for the various parties to identify all aspects of the program from the customer interface and intake, to ongoing maintenance and the impact on the entire rate base. These are important threads to explore and fully understand before offering a program.

Utilities

Utilities can also advance the discussion on arrears management programs by exploring programs that are successful. This can be done by connecting with utilities currently offering programs, or by hearing updates at various industry events and conferences. Arrears management programs have been the focus of workshop topics at conferences held by Edison Electric Institute, American Gas Association and CSWeek.

As utilities explore, they will want to understand the practical aspects of setting up an arrears management program, including the implications on the existing CIS systems. Also important, they will want to explore the regulatory construct that supports arrears management programs to be a success. Recovery of the costs associated with AMP, net of the benefits the utility derives, needs to be designed into the overall rate structure.

I was truly gratified to hear from so many readers about their interest in learning more about arrears management programs. These programs, when well designed, offer the utility the opportunity to connect with customers in a transformative manner. It also provides regulators the ability to fulfill their mandate of assisting those customers in the greatest need. And it provides consumer advocates with another tool to combine with energy assistance, budget counseling and efficiency programs to help consumers in need.

 

About the Author: Penni McLean-Conner is chief customer officer at Eversource Energy, the largest energy delivery company in New England. She serves on several boards, including the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

 

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