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(Utilities)… Make Certain We Know

Given all the challenges we have faced thus far in 2020, I think it is safe to say that there are a lot of people trying to manage their household budgets and are being pulled in multiple directions. Paying for your utilities is one of them. I believe most people genuinely want to pay their utility bills, but we all at one point or another may find ourselves in a very difficult financial position. I pray that you don’t, but I did. This is my story…

I am sharing this based on my own experience following Hurricane Katrina in 2005…and the fact that I didn’t even know help was available from my local utility or other organizations. Katrina was devastating. Having relocated back to my home state of Mississippi from Boston 6 weeks prior to Katrina, I had been fortunate to that point not to need help from my utility company or support organizations. Post-Katrina I found myself without a job, 4 kids, a very high mortgage, and a destroyed home and community. I saw a pile of bills and did the best I could to keep afloat. Today, given the pandemic, active hurricane season, brutal wildfires, and record unemployment, I think there are a lot of people in that situation…just trying to stay afloat.

(Photo by Marianne Todd/Getty Images)

Utilities today do a very good job of keeping the lights on, but sometimes find it challenging to engage their residential customers outside of that core function. Knowing where I could turn for some help, even in the short run, was foreign to me and though there was help available from my utility, their offers for help did not reach me.

There are a lot of programs available from utilities to help customers manage their services and budgets (or even debt), but most of the time you have to go look for them. Recently, I had the opportunity to review a lot of municipal and utility websites. Everybody has a Covid-19 banner for info as soon as you go to the site, which is great. We need to know. But no-one seems to have a banner asking, “Do you need help with paying your bills?”. Based on recent research by the Distributed Energy Financial Group there are over 800 such programs throughout the U.S., but more could be done to communicate to those in need about the services available. Utilities have nearly every communication method available but often struggle to use those channels to ensure that EVERYONE is aware… including those who might not seem to need it (like me in 2005).

DEFG highlighted that names for assistance programs frequently vary. Program names could fall under any of these categories:

Personally, I had no idea these type of support services would even be available to me, so it never occurred to me to seek help. My mortgage company was the only one that I was in communication with directly, and they clearly had an asset they needed to protect. The point is that there are lots of people who are currently struggling and could use the assistance, just to stay afloat and get back on their feet. I was “supposedly” an educated person, and I had no idea. As an industry, we need to do all we can to meet customers (ALL customers) where they are and do everything we can to engage with them. Proactive engagement during difficult times can lead to a more valued and trusted relationship that will benefit both the utility and the customer.

— Darren Raybourn, SVP of Sales at Exceleron Software