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Tips for Communicating a Utility Rate Change

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Naturally, customers don’t love hearing their power rates are going up. While there’s no way to change the fact that such a change will affect their wallets, utilities can do a lot to soften the blow. Here are some suggestions for how to make the news a bit less jarring.

Start early. As soon as your utility knows it needs to raise rates, start developing a communications plan and begin getting the word out to customers. Even better, involve customers in the decision-making process and allow them to contribute ideas and input.

Spell out the reasons. Let customers know the real reasons why you must increase rates. Show them charts, numbers, videos, and other media to help them understand how the decision was made.

Conduct focus groups. Try out different ways of explaining the rate increases to a limited audience to discover which messages resonate best.

Meet customers where they are. Offer to speak at meetings of organizations, businesses, or citizen gatherings. Send utility representatives with authority (such as managers or division leaders) as well as technical staff who can respond to customer questions.

Gather customer input. Listen carefully to customer questions. Even if they’re not stated as concerns, they may still be. For example, “What kind of help can you offer customers with low incomes?” might translate to, “I’m already struggling to meet my financial obligations and am afraid I won’t be able to cover my electric bill with this rate change.”

Address concerns directly. If you don’t have an immediate answer, promise to find out, and follow through. If there’s no way to address a particular concern already in place, take the time to develop a solution.

Be consistent. Create a database of customer questions/concerns and responses given at meetings. Encourage speakers to review this information before addressing groups to learn what others have said. Allow speakers to adjust a response if it doesn’t work well for a particular group.

Use various channels. In addition to in-person meetings, use all communication channels at your disposal, including social media, print advertising, press releases, media interviews, TV commercials, bill inserts, billboards, and newsletters. Be sure to add a new web page to your site that explains the rate change. Again, start this campaign early so customers have time to get used to the idea of the rate change before it happens.

Train customer service reps. These front-line employees are likely to be on the receiving end of many concerns and complaints. Take the time to inform them of appropriate talking points and grant them access to the response database mentioned above.

Have a separate business customer strategy. Remember that businesses respond to information differently than residential customers. You know your community best, so be sure to tailor communications accordingly. Strategies might include anticipating impacts that are different than those for residential customers and keeping communications brief.

Find ways to help. A rate increase be a positive thing for customers if it’s seen as an opportunity to reduce their power costs. Let them know you’re there to help them take steps to decrease energy use, install distributed energy resources, participate in demand response programs, and effectively deploy smart devices.

Be available for questions. In every interaction with customers throughout this process, let them know how to reach you if they have questions or concerns and that they’re welcome to do so.

It’s easy to understand why customers don’t like utility rate increases but effective communication can turn these necessary changes into opportunities for strengthening utility-customer relationships.

How has your utility communicated with customers about rate increases? Please share in the comments.

Karen Marcus's picture

Thank Karen for the Post!

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