Service with a Smile

Northern Wasco County PUD Readily Adapts to Unusual Times

By Rodger Nichols

Customer Service Representative Laurie Layton has been able to work from home since Gov. Kate Brown issued COVID-19 safety guidelines. Photo by Bethany Pounds

Customer service is all about building and maintaining good relationships, quick response times, and satisfactory results. Keeping that up during pandemic conditions offers a new challenge, but Northern Wasco County PUD has stepped up to the demand.

Justin Brock, customer service and key accounts manager says the choice to close the PUD office came in mid-March to protect both employees and customers.

“Most all of the PUD staff was able to connect remotely and continue to work,” he says. “Operations was a little bit different, but they had alternating schedules to manage what was needed.”

The PUD was able to pair incoming phone calls with customer service representatives’ personal phones so they could take calls. If those phones were busy, the PUD’s after-business hours answering service managed the overflow and sent an email with the customer’s message to the customer service representatives.

“I think there has been a little bit of frustration with some customers wanting to speak to someone at

the moment,” Justin says. “Sometimes there’s phone tag, where we’d call and the customer would be busy or not available, but our customers have been patient for the most part.”

Justin says one of the adjustments in response to the pandemic was to reallocate a longstanding program to a different use. For many years, the PUD has offered nonprofits economic grants to boost the local economy.

“This year, the board of directors approved that the money be redistributed to a customer program,” he says.

The COVID-19 Small Business Assistance Program is for qualifying businesses. The goal is to help businesses that have struggled or are struggling because they have closed or restricted their activity.

“I reached out to a neighboring utility across the river, Klickitat PUD,” Justin says. “They were very helpful in terms of sharing what they put together with their own similar program.”

Justin also had help from the Wasco County Economic Development Commission to develop and manage the survey submissions.

To qualify, you must be an active PUD customer and a business or nonprofit entity registered in Oregon; have been in business since January 1, 2020; have between one and 10 employees; and have been impacted by COVID-19 with an emphasis on mandated closures or significant shifts in operations.

“Fill out the survey online and submit it,” Justin says. “If the business is eligible, I’ll reach out to them.”

Customer Service Representative Hayley Windsor opens mail and processes bills. Many PUD consumers have turned to making online payments during the pandemic. Photo by Justin Brock

Successful applicants will have their facilities charge—the flat-rate portion of the bill—credited, as well as 50 percent of the energy charge for three consecutive months, for up to $600 per business.

“The idea was to help businesses get back up on their feet with a little bit of assistance, knowing that they didn’t have to worry about a portion of their operational expense while they were trying to get up and running,” Justin says.

Three weeks into the program, Justin says the PUD has received a good response. More than 30 small businesses are signed up. Requests are coming in daily.

As pandemic conditions improve, the PUD will loosen some of its restrictions. Employees whose work situation allows social distancing and are comfortable with the work arrangement returned to PUD offices on July 6. The offices remain closed to the public for the near future.

Justin says there have been some unexpected benefits to the situation.

“We are more streamlined in terms of how we process new service applications,” he says. “Now we have an online application instead of a paper one. That helps customers if they want new electrical service or want to transfer their service over to a different residence.

“Other customers have also been able to use the PUD’s phone payment system as well or go to our customer portal and make online payments that way. Some people have discovered that it’s quicker and more efficient than mailing in a payment.”

The PUD has initiated several other measures in response to the pandemic:

  • Postponing a planned 3.8 percent rate increase.
  • Suspending disconnects for nonpayment and accrual of late fees.
  • Reducing operations and maintenance expenses.
  • Reducing capital investment programs for the next two years.
  • Expanding the policy on returning customer deposits to ensure community members have access to needed funds.
  • Suspending the recruitment and filling of vacancies at NWCPUD.

The PUD is also advocating at state and federal levels for energy assistance funding for the area.

“We will continue to evaluate operations, policies, and other ways we can support our community,” says Corporate Services Director Cyndi Gentry. “We encourage customers to reach out to us to discuss payment plan options for getting accounts caught up before the high winter usage begins.”

“We’re a customer-owned utility and we’ll do what we can to help our customers in times of need,” Justin says. “We stand together as a community.

For more information on the Small Business Assistance Program, Visit our Northern Wasco PUD Website.