As winter utility bills arrive across the country there is a nearly audible gasp from consumers as they see sharp increases in the cost of heating their homes. Sticker shock caused by natural gas price hikes is adding to anxiety caused by inflation rates not seen in 40 years.
For utilities communicating with customers, the spike in natural gas prices is both a challenge and an opportunity. Consumers have seen relatively flat natural gas prices for about a decade, which makes this winter’s surge even more unexpected. Utilities are an easy target for complaints when prices are on the rise.
Most consumers don’t understand that the current surge is being caused by wholesale price increases that utilities do not control. What’s more, even if consumers knew the origins of their ballooning heating bills, the information would do little to help them solve the household budget crunch.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than half of Americans heat their homes with natural gas. Winter heating bills are expected to jump by around 35 percent. The situation will be exasperated in sections of the country experiencing colder-than-normal conditions.
While utility communicators will want to inform consumers that their companies are not profiteering from the price spike, the situation presents an opportunity to do more by helping customers to manage the challenge.
Utilities already offer consumers a variety of tools that are often ignored, underutilized and unappreciated. It’s during times like these that utilities can show empathy and earn credit as problem-solvers. Utility, government and charity assistance programs can help consumers budget for and level out monthly payments, pay heating bills, catch up on overdue payments and even avoid disconnection. Home energy audits and programs that help consumers better insulate their homes or upgrade inefficient equipment are also important benefits. Reminding people about these programs and how to qualify can help consumers as they try to navigate higher costs.
Not every consumer can make use of needs-based programs, but they can benefit from information on steps to reduce energy use, while appreciating the fact their utility is helping others in the community deal with the natural gas price surge.
Four steps utilities can take to communicate with consumers as price hikes hit:
- Consider using senior leadership as “chief empathy officers” to express concern about the increase in heating bills and acknowledge that your utility understands the difficulty increased heating costs place on vulnerable populations. Utility executives should not ignore the situation when they make appearances before community groups or government regulators. Address the issue in a way that shows the utility is doing what it can to control costs and mitigate hardships.
- Utilize existing platforms—social media, website, paid advertising and billing statements—to acknowledge consumers are seeing jumps in natural gas costs and point them to your website or help line, where they can find useful resources.
- Dial up earned-media efforts with a focus on how-to information around reducing energy use and details about how eligible customers can access programs. The news media will be reporting on customers experiencing sharp utility bill increases, and a proactive approach by utilities can help shape the narrative.
- Collaborate with community partners, from charities and faith-based organizations to elected officials and neighborhood organizations, asking their help in spreading the news about available assistance programs and tips on energy savings.
This winter’s natural gas bills are another reason why communicators play a vital role in building and maintaining utility reputations. Proactive and thoughtful messaging won’t eliminate the sticker shock, but it can go a long way in managing perceptions.