Establishing a Customer Assistance Program

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Last year, I wrote about offering repayment plan options for customers impacted by COVID-19. In addition to providing payment plans, some utilities offer a customer assistance program (CAP) for customers experiencing hardship with paying their bills. If your utility is considering establishing a CAP, here are some things to take into consideration as you establish your program.

The 5 W’s

Remember studying basic composition in school and learning about the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why? Interestingly, the same 5 W’s apply when establishing a Customer Assistance Program (CAP). Let’s examine each one…

Who

Beyond the obvious answer of your utility customers, there are additional considerations when determining who qualifies for a CAP. In order to receive assistance, should your customer be required to have good credit history with you? Must your customer already qualify for some other form of government assistance such as food stamps or rent subsidies? These are all some of the tough questions your utility must decide when establishing a CAP.

In addition to deciding who qualifies for assistance, there is another who question – who determines eligibility? To remain unbiased and avoid criticism from customers who are denied assistance, many utilities opt to use a third party to determine which customers are eligible and how much assistance they should receive. Social services and local charities make eligibility decisions daily for other types of assistance, so offloading the responsibility of determining eligibility for your CAP to one of them makes sense in many cases.

What

What charges and fees are eligible for assistance under your CAP? Will you provide assistance with late fees and cut-off fees, or just with the utility bill itself?

What portion of the customer’s bill will the CAP help with? Should your customer be required to pay a portion of the bill themselves or will your CAP cover the full amount?

Can the CAP be used for security deposits or just to help pay utility bills? Many utilities exclude deposits because any deposit amount over and above the customer’s final bill will be refunded to the customer.

When

When do you provide assistance under your CAP? Do you limit it to once a year, once every six months, as often as needed? This is critical because if you don’t stipulate how frequently customers can receive help under your CAP, some will try to use it every month.

Where

Where does the customer you will be offering assistance to live? If you are a municipal utility providing service beyond your city limits, should your CAP only offer assistance to customers living inside the city, or to all customers?

Why

Why are you providing assistance? Must the customer provide a compelling reason such as recent job loss, disability, or some other qualifying factor? Or does just generally having a hard time paying their bill qualify them for assistance under your CAP?

Establishing your own CAP

As you can see, there are many difficult questions to be wrestled with if your utility is planning to create a CAP. If your utility is in the process of establishing a customer assistance program, please give me a call at 919-673-4050 or email me at gsanders@edmundsgovtech.com to see how a business review could help you with the process.

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