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Depending on where your utility is located, you may have already received your first call of the winter-heating season from a customer inquiring about their bill. With cooler temperatures – and the recent rate increase – customers may be wondering why their bill is higher than it was the previous month.

The challenge your customer-service staff faces is that customers often believe the utility made an error. Someone read the meter wrong or the meter isn’t working correctly. Their bill couldn’t have increased that much from one month to the next. The reality is that the average customer doesn’t understand that a drop in temperature can significantly increase their consumption of electricity.

So how can you reduce the number of frustrated customers your staff deals with? Following are some ideas.

Be proactive before the phone starts ringing. It’s never too soon to educate your customers about ways to cut electrical usage and the relationship between consumption and cost. Educate them on which items in their homes use the most electricity. Set up a display in your lobby with water heaters, heat pumps, etc. If you offer hot water heaters and heat pumps, set up a promotion for those services in the same area. Display the cost savings of switching from gas to electric water heaters. List the benefits of using your products. Create a display that shows other ways to cut energy costs, such as insulation and dual-pane storm windows. Enlarge a thermal image that shows how energy-inefficient houses waste money. Show the money going out the window. Educate customers on the cost savings of lowering their thermostat five degrees. Educate them on the increase in energy usage and cost when temperatures drop into the 20s, the teens and to zero.

Training. Dealing with frustrated customers is a challenging situation for anyone, especially when customers are convinced the utility made a mistake. Supervisors should do role-play sessions with their customer-service staff to practice how to effectively work with customers who are unhappy about high bills. Employees should have a list of questions to ask customers that will get to the root cause of the high bill. They must become a detective to determine if the customer changed their energy-usage habits during the previous billing period. Did they have extra people at the house? How old is the hot water heater? When was the heat pump last serviced? Does the customer have a programmable thermostat?

Online tools. If you have an online energy-audit tool, every customer-service employee should know to use it and be able to walk a customer through such an audit. Your online energy audit should be simple to use. Is it easy for customers to change the parameters and see the savings if they lower their thermostat? Does it show the savings of switching from a gas to an electric water heater or to a heat pump? Your Web site is another great place to educate your customers on how to save energy and reduce their bill. Create a list of the most frequently asked questions your customers have about energy usage and post them on the site with answers. If you don’t have an online energy audit, contact www.apogee.net to learn how easy it is to offer that service. Customers also can learn more about energy usage at www.energyright.com.

Send in the energy-savings person. Some customers don’t have access to the Internet and your customer-service representative has done everything possible to convince them that their bill is accurate. But the customer isn’t buying it. It’s time to send a person to their home to asses their energy-usage situation and recommend solutions to stretch their energy dollars. This is a great opportunity to build rapport and educate customers on how to save money.

Budget billing. From my experience in training utilities, this is one of the simplest solutions to high bills but one of the least mentioned. Train your staff on how to sell the benefits of budget billing. Create an example of an average customer using budget billing and the benefits. Post it on your Web site. Put it in bills as a stuffer to show customers how budget billing can reduce bills during winter months.

Before the phone starts ringing, ask yourself this question: what are we doing right now as a utility to educate our customers on how to reduce their energy costs and become more savvy about energy efficiency?

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David Saxby is president of Measure-X, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based measurement, training and recognition company that specializes in customer service and sales skill training for utility companies.  He can be reached at 888-644-5499 or via e-mail at david@measure-x.com.  Visit the Measure-X Web site at www.measure-x.com.