The Dreaded Rate Increase – How Can Your Team Better Deal With Customer Fallout?

As the two most dreaded words for a utility billing professional, “rate increase” stands as a polarizing and frustrating situation for both the customers and the front-line city workers. With the changing economy, our cities, towns, and municipalities face the struggle to provide the most affordable services to the public, while also maintaining the best equipment, standards and practices. However, we also must realize that, despite economic recovery, many of our customers still feel misplaced resentment toward any entity that they perceive as adding to the conundrum of their rapidly decreasing take-home pay. While rate increases are inevitable for long-term service quality, your team also needs an action plan to best address customer concerns and frustrations. By understanding where your customers are coming from, and developing a strategy to provide a reliable yet empathetic response, your department can weather the storm of “rate-hike rage.”

How Can You Best Prepare Customers for a Rate Increase?

As someone who is in-the-know, you may completely understand the need and reasoning for a rate increase. However, your customers are often oblivious to your city or county’s needs, and therefore, you need to put yourself in their shoes to better serve them. Most customers have dealt with the financial blow of the economic crisis, creating distrust in government as a whole. Many have also seen their employment benefits cut, health insurance rates skyrocket, and have received devastating blows to their pensions or retirement plans. For your most irate customers, their ire may simply be the result of a proverbial “straw that broke the financial camel’s back” situation, regardless of how needed or reasonable your rate increase may be.

So, if you already have a population fed up and impatient, you need to have a staged approach to any rate increase situation. Here are some tips to get started:

Publicity, Publicity, Publicity: The most frustrated customers post-increase will be the ones who never saw it coming. Not only should you utilize every available public media resource to notify customers, but you should also consider adding an insert to their bills at least one to two months prior, so that your information/warning bases are covered.

Prepare for the Onslaught: Even with the best planning, you should still be prepared for the wave of phone calls and office visits that will come when your customers realize their bills have gone up. If they face an endless busy signal, a long line, or the perception of disorganization, their dissatisfaction will only further escalate. Your infrastructure for customer service will determine how you best deal with this eventuality.

Remember Empathy: While a small increase is perfectly reasonable to your staff, the general public may see this as one of the endless service increases they experience across the year. TV, internet, car insurance, health insurance, and utility rates only seem to increase, often at a far greater rate than your customers’ wages. That irate customer may be ruining your day, but you have to remember that your “reasonable increase” seems like another gallon into the financial pool in which they are drowning.

Above all else, the best way to smoothly navigate the public relations aspect of a rate increase is to remember that knowledge is key. When customers are well-informed as to why the increase has happened, and how they can expect improvement in the near future, they are more inclined to be accepting of these changes. As long as your staff has a plan in place that emphasizes both information and empathy, you will be well-equipped to handle the post-increase storm.

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