Dollar Energy Fund CEO Chad Quinn explains why his organization is offering its digital customer assistance tool, MyApp, to utilities for almost nothing. (Spoiler Alert: It’s just the right thing to do.)
In the COVID era, companies across sectors have had to pivot quickly to keep employees safe, business operating and customers satisfied. That’s especially true for essential services like utilities. Those that had the foresight to implement new ways of communicating prior to the pandemic seem to be faring better through it, so far, than those that didn’t.
Dollar Energy Fund, Pennsylvania’s largest energy and utility hardship assistance program, is one of those forward-thinking organizations that acted ahead of time. They equipped themselves with modern technology that made it easier to both transition to having employees work from home when social distancing orders went into effect and to enroll more low-income customers into hardship programs, so that vulnerable people could apply for energy assistance grants before COVID struck.
Chad Quinn, Dollar Energy Fund CEO, explains that as part of their business continuity planning, he saw a need long ago to prepare for a potential crisis. While he couldn’t have foreseen COVID-19’s wrath, he did recognize the importance of advanced planning for extreme circumstances. So, in addition to outfitting many of his call center employees with home office equipment, Dollar Energy Fund’s information technology team and software programmers built MyApp in 2018.
MyApp is Dollar Energy Fund’s proprietary, online self-help tool that customers can use, from any browser, to enter their own data, upload documents and follow their application throughout the certification process.
“It’s extremely important that, when someone wants to enroll in an assistance program, they have the ability to do it online at their convenience,” Quinn says.
Especially now, when social service agencies have had their funding cut and remain closed in many areas because of COVID. Dollar Energy Fund often works with partnering intake agencies such as the Salvation Army and other community-based organizations, where limited and low-income customers have to report in person to meet with an intake coordinator who will help them to apply or re-certify for a program.
Since these social service agencies are currently closed in many communities, customer’s options to apply for assistance are limited.
Thankfully, disconnection moratoriums are still in place. That means fewer people are applying for grants right now. But, says Quinn, there will likely be a spike in applications later this year when utilities are permitted to resume normal collection activity.
“I’m worried about the lingering impacts of the COVID crisis in 2021,” he says.
Successful Program Pilot
In partnership with First Energy Corporation, Dollar Energy Fund was able to roll out MyApp as a pilot program in the first quarter of 2019. Aaron Ruegg, First Energy’s Supervisor of State Communications, says, “We encourage customers of First Energy’s Pennsylvania utilities who are eligible for the Pennsylvania Customer Assistance Program (PCAP) to use MyApp to apply for bill assistance.”
Things went smoothly during the pilot phase, perhaps because MyApp is so easy to use.
“If a customer knows how to buy something on Amazon, then they can use MyApp,” Quinn explains.
Customers can use MyApp from any desktop or mobile browser to apply for assistance through Dollar Energy Fund without having to consult an intake coordinator. From the comfort and safety of their home, they can securely upload all the necessary documents, digitally, and get status updates electronically.
“There is also an Artificial Intelligence component of the MyApp platform that uses a text message (SMS) system to recertify customers,” Quinn adds. “It manages the conversation with customers seeking to recertify for program benefits, and allows them to use their camera to upload the documentation necessary to recertify.”
“At first we were questioned, ‘Do you think that customers would want to send a picture of their pay stub or other personal information via text?’ But because we made it so easy to navigate, participation levels were much higher than anticipated.”Chad Quinn
Meaning, customers who need to re-apply for assistance in subsequent years can agree to be contacted about their status via text message. They can then respond to a series of text prompts that get sent 60 days prior to their expiration date, agree or disagree to proceed via text and, if they do agree, can snap photos of pay stubs, utility bills, and other documents using their cell phones and simply text the images to show proof of income.
The Future is Now
The idea of text bots and online chats to help customers manage paying their energy bills is revolutionary in the utility world. It may sound expensive or overwhelming for companies to implement, and it’s definitely something a lot of people doubted could ever actually work.
“At first we were questioned, ‘Do you think that customers would want to send a picture of their pay stub or other personal information via text?’” says Quinn. “But because we made it so easy to navigate, participation levels were much higher than anticipated.”
Quinn says, “In our pilot program with First Energy Pennsylvania, we had an over 50 percent response rate of the people we sent recertification text reminders to. Of those who responded, about 80 percent finished the process to recertify via SMS on their smartphone. Before COVID, we were recertifying more than two thousand people per month using the text bot in MyApp.”
“I believe that we will see record demand for utility assistance in the next several months and expect that the need will overwhelm call centers in the fall.”Chad Quinn
First Energy Pennsylvania has put a temporary hold on recertifications due to the COVID pandemic, although customers can still use MyApp for online enrollment into PCAP or for hardship grants.
“The inability to pay an energy bill is a side effect of something else,” Quinn explains. “When a household utility is shut off, that can mean the start of a downward spiral, where people can’t bathe, can’t wash their clothes or dishes, or can’t keep their food cold. That’s why we think the ability to apply online or over the phone is so important. Right now, we don’t want to require a customer to visit an agency if they are unable or uncomfortable doing so. What matters to us is the ability to deliver needed assistance and keep people safe.”
“During the COVID pandemic, we are offering MyApp to any electric, gas, water, or wastewater utility that wants to provide an online solution. We are waiving administrative fees for the use of the software,” he says. “The only fee that a utility would need to pay is the cost of customer service agents who review and approve the supporting documentation.”
“We are fortunate to have technology-minded and forward-thinking utility partners across the United States. Pittsburgh’s focus on new technology has allowed us to test traditional thinking. We’re using technology to embrace a new way of doing things and help as many people as we can.”
Quinn is hopeful that other utilities around the country are willing to give MyApp a try. “I believe that we will see record demand for utility assistance in the next several months and expect that the need will overwhelm call centers in the fall.”
Dollar Energy Fund is an independent, nonprofit organization that supports 46 utilities across 15 states and partners with over 550 community agencies to deliver low-income customers with cash assistance grants so that they can pay utility bills and move toward achieving “self-sufficiency.” Dollar Energy has been rated a 4-Star Charity by Charity Navigator. For more information on MyApp or the Dollar Energy Fund, please visit https://www.dollarenergy.org/.