September 27, 2016

Rethinking Disadvantaged Community Engagement

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Water utilities spend a disproportionate amount of time engaging with disadvantaged communities, often to address delinquent or unpaid bills and service disconnections that leave everyone worse off. If a utility is using a shutoff notice as an engagement tool, they are doing it wrong. There are better ways, like implementing customer assistance programs (CAP) to prevent shutoffs in the first place.

Preexisting notions about disadvantaged customers being out of reach of digital communications methods are, in fact, incorrect. According to the Pew Research Center, over 50 percent of low-income households own a smartphone. Smartphone penetration in this demographic creates substantial opportunities for utilities to reach disadvantaged communities with software solutions like customer self-service platforms and targeted digital communications.

How software providers can help

The following framework is inspired by the EPA’s framework for implementing customer assistance programs. Customer self-service software can help utilities engage effectively with disadvantaged communities.

1. Identify a target segment based on income and other eligibility criteria

The right segments can be identified and targeted based on a variety of eligibility criteria. For example, the City of Davis, California needed to test water samples in homes built from 1982-1986 per EPA’s lead and copper rule. Customer engagement software from WaterSmart helped Davis assemble a targeted list of homes that met the criteria and send a communication with personalization details for each household. Results were measured and Davis achieved a 50% open rate and saved hours of work compared to a manual process for identifying and communicating with recipients.

2. Analyze options, including resource and financial analysis

Amazingly, the single most time-consuming aspect of analysis is not the analysis itself; it is preparing the data to be analyzed. Research has found that analysts spend 40 to 60 percent of their time on data preparation and quality assurance. Utility data analytics platforms ingest information automatically and in a consistent manner, resulting in less time spent on data preparation and QA and more time on high value items like actually conducting analysis and making informed decisions about customers.

3. Train staff

A well-trained customer service representative (CSR) makes all the difference to water utility customers. This is especially true when a CSR is dealing with a stressed customer. Likewise, providing ongoing training for utility staff is one of the most crucial tasks for software providers. Like the best utilities, software providers who truly stand out realize that there is no such thing as a 100% self-service software platform and therefore invest a lot of resources into staff training.

4. Conduct outreach to educate the public about Customer Assistance Programs

A program that nobody knows about will not accomplish its goals and customer assistance programs historically have very low participation rates. Public outreach is key. However, the outdated, one-size-fits all method of mass communications is expensive and ineffective. To reach customers more efficiently, utilities should employ the type of targeted communication that is enabled by a customer engagement platform. This is about targeting the right people with the right message at the right time over the right channel. For example, when promoting a customer assistance program, instead of waiting until a customer is delinquent and sending them an impersonal bill insert or advertising a CAP in the local newspaper, a utility might obtain a list of recipients from other assistance programs and send them a personalized invitation via text or e-mail. Targeted public outreach is effective public outreach for disadvantaged communities.

5. Implement, Evaluate, then Adjust

As the old adage goes, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Technology that measures and reports on ongoing customer interactions, and enables utilities to segment and directly communicate with their customers, is a game changer for implementing customer assistance programs and beyond.

Engaging disadvantaged communities does not need to be difficult. By employing new technologies like customer engagement and utility data analytics platforms, utilities can address affordability and social equity issues while simultaneously driving down service costs, protecting revenue, and improving customer satisfaction.

Get our Best Practices Guide on Disadvantaged Community Engagement →

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