By Chandler Dunklin and Chartwell Staff –

Utilities have responded with speed and alacrity to the problems arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The industry, which is often thought of as slow-moving and resistant to change, has in in a matter of days adapted existing structures and procedures designed for disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes to coordinate internally as well as to communicate with customers and other stakeholders as they struggle with the fallout of the virus.

As utilities do their part to keep the lights on, we at Chartwell are committed to assisting in any way we can. We are actively collecting best practice data from across the industry and will continue to play our historic role in connecting utilities to the information and insights they need to serve customers well in this crisis.

A quick and confident response is vital. The utility industry is the essential industry of essential industries. In the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan: “There are a million warnings out there on a million serious things. We add one: Everything works, and will continue to work, as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid, the grid, the grid.”

To help utilities better understand the industry’s overall rapidly evolving response to the coronavirus, and to help them benchmark and coordinate efforts, Chartwell quickly put together a free webinar on March 25 featuring a panel discussion with member utilities Con Edison, LG&E and KU, and Xcel Energy. Below are a few takeaways from the discussion.

Simplicity and clarity are key.

Utilities are focusing on three central messages, communicated both inside and outside the organization:

• We will continue to provide safe and reliable power.
• We are protecting our employees.
• We are relieving the burden on our customers.

Utilities have sought to assure employees and customers that they will continue to provide reliable power, even as they protect the health and safety of employees. Meanwhile, together with their regulators, utilities have suspended all disconnections due to non-payment, a key initiative when so many have been laid off or are unable to work.

As utilities continue to engage with their communities in the coming weeks, it will be important to do so with empathy and honesty.

Internal communication is more important than ever.

Participants discussed the rapid action their utilities took to allow most employees to work off-site, and the methods being used to keep employees informed and address IT issues.

Con Edison made employee safety a top priority after more than 50 employees tested positive for coronavirus. The utility currently has more than 6,000 employees working remotely, a logistical and IT challenge that involved procuring more than 3,000 laptops for employees who had been working exclusively on desktops.

LG&E and KU has released a series of internal videos featuring senior leadership discussing the utility’s response to the virus and addressing employees’ questions. The videos have received a positive response.

Xcel Energy’s corporate communications team now publishes a daily internal newsletter featuring COVID-19 information for employees, including relevant company policies, general news and information, and precautionary measures employees should take.

Xcel’s IT department has also created a series of videos troubleshooting the most common technical problems they’re seeing from their employees working from home. Some utilities have set up a once-per-day conference call to address IT issues as a company, and others have designated a single point of contact for internal issues related to the coronavirus.

Employee safety is paramount.

LG&E and KU has cordoned off departments from one another to slow any potential outbreaks, and has instituted temperature checks for the majority of employees still coming into the office. The utility has also separated its field workers into smaller teams and is limiting interaction among them.

If the situation gets worse, LG&E and KU will move from a level three emergency to a level four, which would require field workers and essential personal to live on-site for up to two weeks at a time. The utility is actively preparing for this outcome.

Call volume is down, but that won’t last.

Most utilities report a significant drop in call volume, likely due to decisions to discontinue disconnections. However, utilities must prepare for a dramatic rise in call volume when the emergency suspension of disconnections ends, and customers are required to pay off their accumulated balances.

Con Edison is already preparing digital messaging to try to head off this expected increase in call volume. In the meantime, panelists said, it is important to make it clear that, while disconnections have been suspended, billing has not been suspended. Honest and straightforward communications now will save a great deal of trouble in the future.

Xcel Energy is in the process of creating payment plans with generous terms to put in place once the emergency moratorium on shutoffs is over.

At Chartwell, our focus for decades has been to help the utility industry improve the customer experience. The coronavirus is a unique challenge for the industry and for the world, and likewise presents challenges and opportunities well beyond the scope of usual day-to-day utility operations. Unlike the major events often faced by the industry, caused by hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and the like, the current crisis will require a long-term strategy for customer and community relations that will undoubtedly evolve over time.

As the situation evolves, Chartwell will be there to help utilities serve their customers and be a bright spot in an otherwise dark situation.

In the comments section below, please feel free to ask questions or to share your own utility’s challenges and successes in responding to COVID-19. Chartwell would like to hold more complimentary complimentary webinars on this topic in the coming weeks. If  you’re interested, let us know in the comments below.

If you are interested in learning about Chartwell’s Online Insight Center or its three Leadership Councils, please reach out to Tim Herrick at therrick@chartwellinc.com.