Many banks, credit card issuers and other lenders have promised to help those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. They are offering to defer or reduce payments and to waive interest charges and rebate fees for those who have lost jobs, had their hours reduced or otherwise lost income to the COVID-19 crisis.

The help usually isn’t automatic, however. You have to ask for it, and in the right way.

Many financial institutions are encouraging people to reach out through live chats or messaging on the companies’ sites or in their mobile apps. However you connect, there are important questions that need to be answered.

Among them:

• What steps do I need to take to qualify? You can start your research on the financial institution’s site to see what kinds of help may be available and how to apply. Generally, you will want to confirm the details with a human, including the steps you must take to apply, said the National Consumer Law Center’s Lauren Saunders, who advises keeping a record of the conversation and what you were told. You can take written notes of phone calls, including the time, date and name of the company representative, or take screenshots of electronic communications.

“Some people assume that [a hardship program] will automatically kick in if they just miss a payment, which is very dangerous to assume,” said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Skipped payments can lead to credit-score damage and collection calls, and could limit the hardship options available.

There’s one program that is automatic, but it pertains only to student loans held by the federal government. Payments on those loans are suspended until Sept. 30.

• Exactly how does it work? Companies take different approaches to their hardship programs. One lender may allow you to skip payments but charge you late fees; another may waive the fees but report skipped payments to the credit bureaus. Most will continue to charge interest, and some will expect a lump-sum payment of the amount you skipped.

Ask if the payments can be tacked on to the end of the loan or paid off over time, McClary suggests. Also request that the account be reported “paid as agreed” to the credit bureaus to avoid a potentially large hit to your credit scores.

• How long will the help last? A hardship program may last three to six months, but you may have the option to extend the relief if you ask.

Don’t put off asking for help if you are struggling, since it’s not clear when disruptions will end. It’s better to have more help than you need than to need more help than you have.

E-mail: lweston@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lizweston.