Customer Advocates Serve Up Strategies and Support During Pandemic

By Jennifer Bray

 

The COVID-19 crisis has not only brought major health concerns for most Americans, it also has brought economic challenges for many – some who may have never faced a situation of loss of employment or income before. To help those customers who are experiencing such hardships, National Grid is finding new ways to educate them about the potential resources that can help them continue to pay their utility bills in these worrisome days.

Recently, our Customer Advocate Team launched a new webinar series across all jurisdictions called “Solutions to Help with Your Energy Bill.”  The webinars are open to the public and are intended to help customers who may be struggling financially due to the pandemic get the answers and help they need.

Damaris Dominguez is National Grid’s Lead Customer Advocate in New England and led a recent webinar. She and her team have helped customers identify assistance solutions that make their energy bill more manageable.

With the coronavirus crisis decimating the economy and creating staggering unemployment numbers, more people are financially impacted. Almost 200 people were registered for a recent online presentation in Rhode Island. Many of them asking a flurry of financial questions.

“We want you to succeed with whatever you are having an issue with,” Dominguez told the group.

National Grid has taken many steps to support everyone affected during the pandemic. That includes temporarily suspending service shut-offs for nonpayment, committing more than $1 million across Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York to help support hunger relief and human services. It’s also meant conducting proactive outreach campaigns through emails, letters, outbound calls, traditional and social media, ads and webinars to help customers manage their energy bills, letting customers take advantage of a variety of payment and billing options, and providing information on financial assistance and energy savings programs.

“Our advocates are working from home and are receiving referrals from agencies and the call center,” said Dominguez. “They are calling customers and are working with them through the referral system. They are also conducting outbound calls to enroll customers in an AMP (Arrears Renewal Management Program).”

In upstate New York, Sherry Higgins is the manager for Consumer Advocacy. She and her team also fielded questions that focused on bill-paying concerns during their webinar. “One customer has all electric heat and did not know about the emergency HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program) option,” said Higgins.

Samantha Perez is a Customer Advocate in New England and her role is to provide advocacy for customers who are having difficulty paying their bills. She works closely with the customer to identify social service programs they may qualify for and help them access resources.

For Perez, this pandemic allows her to give her customers more personalized service. “While working from home, I have more time to focus more on each customer by conducting more follow-up calls to ensure they were able to receive the help they needed.”

One of the biggest challenge’s customers are facing now if being able to pay their bills on time, said Perez. “Customers should contact their local CAP (Customer Assistance Program) agency to see how they can help,” she said. Perez also often refers customer to call the United Way at 211, it’s a great resource where customers can get a list of agencies who currently have funding to assist.

Many of the questions submitted during the webinars are from customers who are facing new and unexpected challenges during this difficult time of COVID-19. National Grid offers a wide net of help and support, even for people who have never qualified before. Flexible payment plans, the discount rate, our forgiveness program, budget plan and income eligible energy efficiency program are available. There is also a range of payment options. Customers who are financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and struggling to pay their bill can enroll in a custom payment plan right over the phone.

Perez says contacting a Customer Advocate is an important step because they take the time to evaluate the customer’s current financial situation and weigh the best options for the customers. “I feel that now more than ever, we need to consciously provide empathy and care during this time to our customers, which in return leaves a long-lasting emotional connection with the communities we serve,” Perez said.

A customer who participated in the webinar wrote in this comment: “You all did a tremendous job with this seminar and it is most appreciated that National Grid considers our comprised situations – I thank you very much.”

“In these uncertain times, these webinars offer our income eligible and vulnerable customers a comprehensive look into our programs and services – at a time when it is needed the most,” Higgins said.