As temperatures drop in the northern regions of the US and Canada, customers’ utility bills climb, prompting an inevitable uptick in questions from customers. In this report, we discuss how you can handle high bill calls—whether in winter or summer.
Seasonal high bills
Seasonal bill fluctuations have distinctive characteristics and solutions. A tailored approach to solving seasonal bill increases can enhance the quality of customer care. Based on E Source research among utilities that handle inquiries about seasonal high bills, we developed a five-step road map to help utility call centers resolve high-bill complaints (figure 1).
How you help a customer with a high energy bill depends on several factors. Identifying and addressing the obvious, easy-to-rectify problems first will shorten the interaction and satisfy the customer. By following these steps and using the suggested calculators, formulas, and other resources, customer service representatives (CSRs) can cool down heated conversations about increased energy costs.
5 steps to resolution
Many customers calling about higher-than-expected bills are confused, anxious, and probably angry. Follow these steps to calm callers and assuage their fears.
Step 1: Listen to the customer’s concerns
Taking the time to listen to the customer enables you to determine whether her high bill is the result of increased home heating, cooling, other seasonal energy demands, or even nonseasonal changes. For example, a caller may let on that her bill has been getting higher ever since her grandmother moved in three months ago. CSRs should also pay attention when customers express fears such as “If my bill is this high in September, I don’t want to think about what it will be in January. If it keeps going up, I may not be able to pay!” Listening to customers’ fears is the first step in defusing the intense emotional reactions often associated with high-bill complaints. Also, people don’t always express their deepest concerns the first time through, so CSRs should repeatedly prompt customers for additional details.
Step 2: Determine whether the reading was estimated or actual
Identify whether the bill was calculated based on an estimated meter reading or an actual meter reading.
Estimated meter reading. Estimated meter readings warrant several specific actions. First, determine whether the reading is reasonable based on the customer’s history of use. Compare the bill in question to the bill for the same month from the previous year, paying attention to the therms, cubic feet, or kilowatt-hours (kWh). Don’t just look at the financial side of the statement—changes in energy costs may account for changes in the bill even if usage stayed the same. If the usage is similar, explain to the customer that the variation is due to changes in rates or fuel costs. If this is the case, the customer call may be an opportunity to recommend energy-saving measures.
However, if the estimated usage seems out of line with the customer’s typical usage, you should either find out whether the customer will wait for the next billing cycle for an actual reading, or schedule a field order to obtain an actual reading. If the meter is inaccessible, schedule an appointment for a time when the customer can provide access.
Actual meter reading. Determine whether the meter reading has an obvious error by comparing usage for a similar billing period, such as the same month of the previous year. Look at the beginning and ending readings. One common error occurs when the meter reader misses a digit position. In such a case, the ending reading might be as much as 10 times higher than the beginning reading. Count the number of digits—if the reading seems wrong, order a reread. If the original reading was incorrect, then issue a corrected bill. If the second reading confirms that the original bill was correct, call the customer to follow up and inquire more deeply into reasons for the higher-than-expected reading.
Step 3: Assess nonseasonal effects
Seasonal energy demands are usually the main suspect in increased energy bills, but it’s helpful to look at other possible causes of billing variations. Customers may not realize that other factors can affect their bill. High bills at the change of the seasons could also be caused by changes in the customer’s behavior. A thorough assessment by a diligent CSR can find the correct cause of increased energy use and help customers determine whether changes in their household are at the root of the issue.
Three main household changes can account for noticeable changes in energy consumption. By checking with the customer, the agent can rule out these three common nonseasonal causes before moving on to addressing seasonal changes.
New appliances. Customers may have added new appliances without realizing that the products consume more energy. Ask whether a new appliance has been added during the billing cycle. To determine any new appliance’s energy load, divide its wattage by 1,000 and multiply this number by the number of hours the appliance is used in a month. The result is the estimated number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) that the appliance will add to the customer’s energy usage. If the appliance is on all the time, factor in 720 hours of use in a billing cycle. If the customer does not know the wattage, ask her for the amps and volts specifications shown on the appliance. The wattage can be calculated by multiplying the number of amps by the number of volts. If the customer is unable to provide this information, some actions like purchasing a new refrigerator and moving the old one into the garage can increase energy usage. Other major items, such as portable heaters, air-conditioning units, gaming consoles, and large home entertainment systems can also cause significant upticks in energy usage.
Malfunctioning appliances. New appliances aren’t the only culprits. Aging refrigerators, iced-up freezers, or dirty furnaces can drive up energy bills. Hot-water leaks from old appliances or fixtures can also increase heating costs.
Additional people. More people in a household can account for added energy consumption. Ask if the customer has had guests or other additions to her household.
Step 4: Assess seasonal effects and other data
As cold weather arrives, or as the weather starts to warm, electric and gas bills may rise due to increased demand for climate control. To get a precise figure for a customer’s particular consumption by appliance, use an energy-use calculator. Many utilities offer these calculators on their websites, or you can use a third-party tool such as the RapidTables energy consumption calculator.
Seasonal changes are likely to cause changes in energy usage. One precise way to quantify changes in the weather is to compare the heating degree-days (HDDs) of consecutive bills during winter months. Even though utilities don’t track cooling degree-days (CDDs) the Environmental Protection Agency has been tracking changes in CDDs nationally; unsurprisingly, CDDs have increased across large swaths of the United States, and this change could be affecting your customers’ bills.
HDDs and CDDs are used to compare heating and cooling needs on equal terms from one period to another. They allow you to examine the role the weather played in the customer’s energy charges. These calculations compare average monthly temperatures, with higher numbers indicating a need for increased heating or cooling. Here’s how to calculate an HDD:
- Determine the balance point—that is, the temperature at which a structure is neither heated nor cooled. For illustration, let’s assume the balance point is 65° Fahrenheit (F).
- Find the average outdoor temperature for a 30-day billing period. In our example, let’s say it’s 55° F.
- Calculate the difference in degrees. In our example, the difference is 10.
- Multiply this number by 30 (or the number of days in a billing period) to determine the number of HDDs for a given time frame.
To determine the number of CDDs, follow similar steps:
- Find the balance point.
- Determine the average outdoor temperature.
- Calculate the difference in degrees to cool down to the balance point.
- Multiply this figure by the number of days in the billing cycle.
Some utilities put the number of HDDs for the last billing period and for the comparable month (for example, November of this year and November of last year) on the customer’s bill to make comparison easy. To find the demand for heating used throughout the most recent billing period, look at the average daily temperature for the billing month in question:
- If it’s below 65° F, subtract from 65. (If the average daily temperature is 65° F or higher, there were no HDDs.)
- Multiply the resulting number by the number of days in the month. This will give you the HDDs for that month.
- Repeat the calculation with the comparable month from the previous year.
- Compare the number of HDDs. The higher number is the month with the greater demand for heating. (You still need to take the price of heating energy into account to compare bills fairly.)
If the customer has a smart meter and the CSR can access the customer’s interval data, the rep can identify times when the customer could reduce cooling or heating—for example, when no one is in the home. The rep can also identify times during the holiday season when Christmas lights were unnecessarily left on, or times of the day when children got home from school and immediately turned on every appliance in the home. Armed with this information, CSRs can recommend behavioral solutions that can markedly curb usage and reduce the charges on future utility bills.
Step 5: Offer solutions
Consider the following actions to help your customers manage their bills.
Suggest budget billing. Budget billing (sometimes called levelized or averaged billing) may be an appropriate solution to seasonal spikes in bills. Dramatic changes in energy bills can shock a customer on a tight budget. Predictable bills created by levelized billing can help. Typically, such programs average the previous year’s bills for a more consistent billing amount. For 11 months, the customer receives bills based on this average. In the 12th month, the bill is adjusted to make up for any over- or underbilling.
Offer information on energy assistance programs. Many states assist customers who have limited financial resources. Most low-income customers are willing to pay their bills but may need minor assistance to do so. Be sure to make customers aware of the many types of assistance available to them, and help match customers to the right program. More information on specific states’ programs can be found at the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Clearinghouse website.
Recommend an energy audit. Customers might also be interested in having an independent, thorough assessment of their home’s energy use. Energy audits specifically look at how a home can be heated more efficiently. See the ENERGY STAR page on home performance assessments.
Job aides can help CSRs incorporate these steps into their workflow. The checklist below can be incorporated into training documents to help agents act on the suggestions noted in this report.
Formula to calculate more-exact monthly energy cost. If you or the customer would like to calculate energy usage for any appliance, you can use this simple formula. The customer will need to provide the wattage or amperage of the appliance (often located in a hard-to-see place, such as where the power cord enters the appliance). Next, estimate how many hours the appliance runs each day.
Or, if the label gives watts instead of amps:
Tips for reducing bills. There are many practical ways to lower energy demand. Your utility probably has information on basic suggestions to lower energy bills. As the seasons change, take a minute to review your company’s brochures and web pages. Be ready to share those resources with customers.
Energy audits. With increasing environmental awareness, many customers are taking an active interest in their own energy use. Suggest an energy audit for their home.
Demand-side management programs. Many customers may be eligible for a variety of incentives to promote efficiency, which in turn can help reduce bills in the future. For example, suggest that a customer sign up for an air-conditioning cycling program that has a bill credit associated with it.
Financial assistance. When financial assistance is appropriate, you can direct customers to a variety of resources, including the LIHEAP Clearinghouse website.