Confronting the billing and payment challenges raised by COVID-19

By Chandler Dunklin, Client Relationship Manager –

Most utilities responded quickly to the rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by halting disconnections due to nonpayment. That led to a drop in call volume of as much as 20-30% since late March, according to many utilities.

Now, both utilities and customers are wondering: What happens when coronavirus lockdown is over?

This week, Chartwell hosted a webinar panel discussion with three member utilities – PSE&G, SMUD and OPPD – to explore current billing and payment issues and what’s on the horizon over the next 12-18 months.

The panel discussion focused on three key areas: connecting customers with payment plans and programs, communicating with low income customers, and communicating with business customers.

Payment plans

Utilities are coming up with creative new offerings to show empathy for customers who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis while maintaining the integrity of the billing process.

SMUD is loosening restrictions, making it easier for customers to apply to for emergency assistance, which includes payment assistance and a lower electric rate. The utility has also given call center representatives more authority to create payment plans for customers, who call in and are unable to pay their bill.

PSE&G is offering customers payment arrangements for up to 12 months, while waiving deposits and late fees. The utility is also actively reconnecting customers who were shut off prior to the crisis, while waiving reconnection fees.

OPPD is removing barriers to payment programs and waiving or drastically reducing deposits. The utility is working hard to enroll as many customers as possible into payment plans early in the crisis and encouraging customers not to wait to sign up.

Communicating with low-income customers

Utilities are encouraging low-income customers who are having trouble paying their bill to get on a payment plan. A frequent message is: “If you work with us, we’ll work with you.”

OPPD is communicating with low-income customers predominantly through the call center. However, the utility is also in the midst of launching a marketing campaign across digital and traditional media channels to proactively reach out to customers. The campaign will remind customers that the utility is there to help, and customers facing difficulties should visit OPPD’s website for more information on starting a payment plan.

PSE&G has communicated with low-income customers primarily through the utility’s call center. Many of these calls have focused on reassuring customers that their lights won’t be turned off, and the utility will work with them and put them in touch with resources (both internally and externally) to help pay their bill.

Communicating with businesses

SMUD is leaning heavily on strategic account advisors to proactively reach out and check on business customers via phone and email. Many of these customers have never fallen behind on their power bill but now, with their business shut down, they are struggling to make payments. The utility is also proactively communicating payment-plan options to its business customers.

PSE&G is reaching out to business customers who have received incorrect bill estimates due to inaccurate meter reads, while their business was shut down. The utility is encouraging customers to send in pictures of their meters and to call the utility to quickly correct any errors.

Looking ahead

The industry is moving forward carefully, aware there are no easy solutions to the problems the industry and the country are facing. In their discussion, PSE&G, SMUD, and OPPD agreed that there won’t be a day when they will flip a switch and immediately begin disconnecting customers again or charging a backlog of late fees. Each utility is working to figure out ways to slowly pull back on emergency measures and put together medium- and long-term payment and cost-recovery strategies.

PSE&G, SMUD, and OPPD, along with 21 other utilities representing over 50 million customers, are members of Chartwell’s Billing and Payment Leadership council. The council continues to discuss these pressing issues, sharing successes and lessons learned, as they plot the best path forward in these challenging times in the wake of COVID-19. If your utility is interested in participating in these crucial conversations, please reach out to Tim Herrick for more information,