Online application poll results

 
The last Utility Information Pipeline included a poll asking how utilities handle allowing  customers to apply for service online. Here are the results of that poll (clicking on the chart will open a larger image in a new window):
 
Online Applications Poll Results
 

Completing the process in the office

Based on the poll results, most utilities still require the application process to be completed in their office. This is in spite of the fact that a majority of those utilities have an application form which can be downloaded or completed online.

Applying online

The only poll choice with no votes was “Applicants can complete the application process online, but must come to our office to show ID.”

Three of the responding utilities allow the entire application process to be completed online without requiring the customer to show ID.

Red Flags Rule policy compliance

As we explored in a previous Utility Information Pipeline, guarding against fraud in the application process is one of the key components of a Red Flags Rule policy. In order to verify the customer’s identity, most utilities require applicants to show photo ID and proof of residency (lease agreement or closing documents) for the address at which they are applying for service.

Which leads to the question – if the applicant isn’t required to show photo ID, how do these utilities confirm their identity?

If your utility is one of the three who responded, or if you allow online applications without requiring ID, I would be interested in learning how you comply with your Red Flags Rule policy. Feel free to comment below or send me an e-mail.

Could your office operate more efficiently?

Is your application for service process cumbersome and outdated? Are there other ways your office could become more efficient? If the answer to either question is “yes”, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help you learn how your office could operate more efficiently.

Click here to subscribe to my free, bi-weekly e-mail newsletter...

© 2016 Gary Sanders

How can your customers apply for service?

Do you require new customers to come to your office to apply for service?


 

Guarding against fraud

Allowing customers to apply for service online is a growing trend among utilities. As we examined in the last Utility Information Pipeline, guarding against fraud in the application process is one of the key components of a Red Flags Rule policy.

Verifying that your customer really is who he or she claims to be is the best way to prevent fraudulent applications. Most utilities do this by requiring the applicant to show photo ID and proof of residency (lease agreement or closing documents) for the address at which they are applying for service.

Why is this important?

If you base the amount of a security deposit on the applicant’s credit score, using a stolen ID could allow a potential bad debt customer to establish service with no deposit.

Additionally, if the applicant is a previous bad debt customer, using a stolen identity allows them to avoid detection of the bad debt when you perform a bad debt search.

Many businesses allow a utility bill in the customer’s name as proof of ID. If someone is able to fraudulently establish an account, they could easily use their bill from your utility to defraud other businesses.

How does applying online change this?

If you allow customers to apply online (as opposed to merely downloading an application form), how do you confirm they are who they claim to be? Sure, they can take a picture of their driver’s license with their smartphone and upload it to your website. But without visually verifying their identity against the driver’s license, how do you know it’s not stolen?

Some utilities will allow customers to apply online, but require them to visit the office in person within the first week of establishing service. By doing so, the utility has the opportunity to scan the customer’s driver’s license and attach it to their customer record.

How do you handle online applications?

How does your utility deal with online applications? Please take this quick poll.


 
Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the results in the next issue.

Does your application process need reevaluating?

Does your application for service process still involve handing a new applicant a clipboard to complete a paper application? If so, or if there are other ways you need to become more efficient, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help you evaluate how your office can be more efficient.

Click here to subscribe to my free, bi-weekly e-mail newsletter...

© 2016 Gary Sanders

Are you doing all you can to protect against fraud?

The last Utility Information Pipeline dealt with your Red Flags Rule policy and if it is up-to-date. Today, we’ll take a look at applying the Red Flags Rules at various phases of the account lifecycle.

The graphic below is from LexisNexis and identifies key areas in the life of a utility account where potential identity theft and fraud, two key areas addressed by the Red Flags Rule, can occur. If you’re not familiar with LexisNexis, many utilities use their services to research and validate social security numbers. Your utility may already use their services if you operate in a state with a debt set-off program and need to locate social security numbers for bad debt accounts.

For most utilities, the infographic below is primarily relevant for the Account Opening process, but can also apply to Account Management and Account Collections:

LexisNexis_Utility_AccountLifeCycle

Account opening

When a new customer applies for service, you should insure the applicant is who he or she claims to be. The two best ways to do this are to require photo ID and proof of residency (lease agreement or closing documents) for the address for which they are applying for service.

You should also perform a bad debt search using relevant identifying information (name, driver’s license number, social security number and date of birth) to see if the applicant is a previous customer with possible unpaid bills.

Finally, if you base your security deposit on the applicant’s credit rating, insuring the applicant is who they claim to be is vitally important.

Account management

Insuring the person you are talking with is indeed the account holder is important before divulging any financial information for an account. If the customer is in your office, their identity can easily be verified by comparing their face or current photo ID to the photo ID on file.

Customers on the phone aren’t as easily verified, so many utilities require the caller to provide either the last four numbers of their social security number or answer a security question.

If a customer who previously had no history of delinquencies suddenly appears on your cut-off list, do you have a policy in place to insure they have an adequate security deposit?

Account collections

The key to collecting final bills is to be diligent and have an aggressive program in place to follow up with unpaid final bills. Waiting until the end of your fiscal year, just before writing off bad debt accounts, is too late to follow up. You should actively pursue unpaid final bills after each billing.

Is it time to reexamine your processes?

If you aren’t doing all you can to protect against identity theft and fraud or to collect bad debt accounts, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help you evaluate how to improve your effectiveness.

Click here to subscribe to my free, bi-weekly e-mail newsletter...

© 2016 Gary Sanders

Is your Red Flags Rule policy up-to-date?

You remember the Red Flags Rule, don’t you? For many people, it is best remembered because of multiple deadline extensions before it finally went into effect.

The Red Flags Rule originated with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) of 2003. It had an original effective date of November 1, 2008 and implementation was delayed three times, finally taking effect on January 1, 2011.

Red Flags Rule Flowchart

The Red Flags Rule is designed to help prevent identity theft. There are four elements to a Red Flags Rule policy:

  • Identify relevant red flags
  • Detect red flags
  • Prevent and mitigate identity theft
  • Update the program

Let’s examine each of these elements in more detail…

Identify relevant red flags

In this phase of your Red Flags Rule policy, you should determine what types of suspicious activity might be relevant to your particular utility. For example, do you require photo ID and proof of residency when establishing a new account? If so, relevant red flags could be what appears to be an altered ID or the name on a lease agreement not matching the name of the applicant for service.

Detect red flags

Detection of red flags requires your customer service representatives to be vigilant when taking an application for service from a new customer. In this phase, your staff should be actively reviewing the possible red flags identified in the previous section each time they interact with a customer.

Prevent and mitigate identity theft

This phase of your policy documents what action to take when a red flag is detected. Depending on the severity of the red flag that was detected, the mitigation could range from contacting law enforcement to denying service to taking no action.

Update the program

The final phase of a Red Flags Rule policy is the requirement to update the policy as needed. Changes in technology and new schemes from identity thieves are two reasons you would want to update your policy.

Approval and training

Your Red Flags Rule policy must be approved by your board or governing body, or a committee appointed by your board. Each new hire should receive training about your Red Flags Rule policy as part of their initial orientation. It’s also not a bad idea to conduct periodic refresher reviews of the policy with current staff members.

Does your Red Flags Rule policy need updating?

If your Red Flags Rule policy hasn’t been reviewed since it went into effect or if you don’t have one, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help you update your policy.

Click here to subscribe to my free, bi-weekly e-mail newsletter...

© 2016 Gary Sanders

Reader Spotlight – City of Graham

This is the first in what I hope becomes a regular feature of the Utility Information Pipeline that I’m calling “Reader Spotlights”. In each Reader Spotlight issue I will highlight an initiative undertaken by a reader of the Utility Information Pipeline.

Effective July 1 of last year, at the start of the current fiscal year, the City of Graham North Carolina changed the way they assess late fees and the amount they charge as a cut-off fee for non-payment. They also implemented, for the first time, a fee for initiating service.

Frankie Maness, Graham City Manager, said “Delinquent accounts have been a longstanding problem for the City and we have debated many times on methods to mitigate the costs. During this past budget season I ran across a Utility Information Pipeline from 2012 that indicated our fees, when compared to our peers, were way overdue for an update. With Gary’s assistance, we have now implemented changes and the results are starting to show increased revenue and a reduced burden from these accounts. At the same time, we implemented a Service Initiation Fee which has also generated additional revenue.”

With Gary’s assistance, we have now implemented changes and the results are starting to show increased revenue and a reduced burden from these accounts.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to the 2015 Utility Fee Survey results issue with more current data than the issue Frankie referenced above.

Let’s take a look at the changes they implemented…

Change in how late fees are calculated

Prior to July 1, Graham charged a flat $5.00 late fee to all customers, regardless of the amount of the past due bill. Effective July 1, they implemented a hybrid late fee of 2% of the outstanding balance with a minimum of $5.00.

For the period of July through December, this minor change in the way late fees are calculated impacted only 2.85% of the customers who were charged a late fee. However, it resulted in a 16.97% increase in revenue from those customers!

Here is a graph of the late fee amounts over the $5.00 minimum that were charged (clicking on the any of the graphics will open a larger image in a new window):

Graham Late Fees in Excess of Minimum

As you can see, nearly half of the customers who were impacted still paid $10.00 or less in late fees. However, the top 15 customers accounted for nearly $3,000.00 in increased revenue. In fact, in spite of the increased late fees, one account in the top 15 was still late every month! Your utility doesn’t have any customers like this, does it?

A month-by-month comparison of the same period from the previous year shows the number of accounts charged a late fee didn’t change appreciably:

Graham Number of Accounts Charged Late Fee

In fact, over the same period, 95 more customers were charged a late fee in 2015 than 2014.

Increased cut-off fees

At the same time, Graham increased their cut-off fee (they wisely call it a Nonpayment Fee) from $15.00 to $40.00. This higher fee resulted in 24.33% fewer customers on the cut-off list generating 101.79% more revenue! The details are shown below:

Graham Cut-Off Fee Comparison

Unlike the change in late payment penalty, this increase in the nonpayment fee did have a significant impact on the number of customers on the cut-off list, as compared to the same period the year before:

Graham Number of Accounts Cut-Off

Interestingly, the increased cut-off fee reduced the number of accounts on the cut-off list from 3.20% to 2.42% of Graham’s customer base. This moved them from the “room for improvement” to “normal range” on my acceptable range scale for accounts on the cut-off list.

New service initiation fee

The third initiative in the FY 2015-2016 budget for the City of Graham was the establishment of a Service Initiation Fee. This is an administrative fee charged to each new customer applying for utility service and is designed to recoup the cost of initiating service.

For the period of July through December 2015, this new fee generated $3,720.00 in additional revenue.

How up-to-date are your fees?

If, like the City of Graham, you think your fees may be outdated or in need of review, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could help your utility.

A special offer

To celebrate the inaugural Reader Spotlight issue, I’m offering a special offer to the first five Utility Information Pipeline readers who respond. If you are one of the first five to respond, I will conduct a personalized fee consultation for one-third off the regular price! That’s $1,000 rather than the usual $1,500 price for this service.

I will review your utility’s current fee schedule and conduct an in-depth phone assessment to learn more about your fees. You will receive a presentation quality document illustrating how your fees compare with other utilities. Also included will be my recommendations for revising any existing fees and suggestions of new fees you should consider charging.

If you are interested in this special offer, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or e-mailing me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com. Remember, the discounted special offer is only available to the first five people who respond.

Would you like to be featured in a Reader Spotlight?

Has your utility adopted new policies or streamlined procedures as a result of something I’ve written here or presented at a speaking engagement?

If so, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to discuss including your initiative in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Click here to subscribe to my free, bi-weekly e-mail newsletter...

© 2016 Gary Sanders

2015 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

The 2017 Utility Fee Survey is now open. Please click here to participate in the survey.

 
 
 

This is the last of three consecutive Utility Information Pipelines reporting the results of the 2015 Utility Fee Survey, an update to the original Utility Fee Survey I conducted in 2012. 106 utilities, representing 19 states, ranging in size from 83 to 90,000 active accounts participated in the survey.

The first issue summarized the demographics of the survey respondents as well as water and sewer tap and impact fees. The last issue dealt with delinquent fees and policies. Today’s issue explores the remaining fees.

If you’re interested, here are the results from the 2012 Utility Fee Survey:

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part I

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part II

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

Clicking on any of the graphs will open a larger image in a new window.

Returned check fees

Of the 106 participating utilities, 105 charge a returned check fee. Returned check fees range from $6.00 to $50.00, as this graph illustrates:

Returned Check Fees

Application fees

In Utility Information Pipeline #10, I wrote about application for service best practices. One of my recommendations was to charge a non-refundable application fee, in addition to any security deposit, to all new accounts. I’m pleased to report that 55 of the 106 utilities (representing 51.9%) responding to the survey charge such an application or administrative fee. This is down slightly from the 52.3% reported in the 2012 Utility Fee Survey. These application fees range from $5.00 to $100.00 as shown below:

Application Fees

Meter reread fees

25 of the 106 utilities (or 23.6%) charge a meter reread fee if the customer requests their meter be reread. This is up from the 18.2% charging a meter reread fee in 2012. In many cases, this fee is waived if it turns out the customer was correct and the utility misread the meter. Of the utilities that charge a meter reread fee, the fee ranges from $5.00 to $50.00 as this graph shows:

Meter Reread Fees

Meter tampering fees

78 of the 106 utilities (or 73.6%) charge a meter tampering fee. This is up from 60.2% charging a meter tampering fee in 2012. Nine utilities charge the actual cost of repairs or cost plus an administrative fee. Four more utilities recover their costs through the judicial system. The remaining 65 utilities charge a flat fee ranging from $15.00 to $1000.00 as shown below:

Meter Tampering Fees

Convenience fees

One of my earliest issues explained why I believe utilities should accept credit cards. Of the 106 utilities responding to the survey, 86 of them (or 81.1%) accept credit cards. I’m pleased to report that this is an increase from 62.5% three years ago. Of the 86 that do accept credit cards, 40 of these charge a convenience fee on at least one form of credit card payments as shown below:

Convenience Fees

The convenience fees charged by these utilities are too diverse in how they are assessed to be graphed, so they are presented here in a table.

Other fees

In addition to the fees that have been described in the three results issues, the survey asked what other fees utilities charge. Below I’ve listed a few of the more creative fees that were reported:

Meter test fee

A number of utilities charge a fee if the customer requests that their meter be tested. The survey didn’t specifically ask about meter test fees, however one utility volunteered that they only charge the fee if test determines the meter is registering correctly. Hopefully all utilities follow this policy because the customer is probably doing you a favor if the meter test reveals the meter is registering incorrectly.

Return trip fee

When turning a meter on, most utilities will not leave the water on if the meter indicates water is running inside the house and no one is home. This requires the utility to make a return trip when the customer is home to turn the meter on again. Several utilities charge a return trip fee to cover the time and expenses involved in returning to the customer’s home.

Same day connection fee

A number of utilities routinely provide next day service for activating new accounts. A few of these utilities charge an additional fee for providing same day service.

Field collection fee

Most utilities have adopted the best practice of not collecting money in the field on cut-off day. At least one utility still allows customers to pay the field technician to avoid being cut off and they charge an additional $25.00 to provide that service.

A special offer

I still have a couple slots left for the special offer I’m offering to the first five Utility Information Pipeline readers who respond. If you are one of the first five to respond, I will conduct a personalized fee consultation for for one-third off the regular price! That’s $1,000 rather than the usual $1,500 price for this service.

I will review your utility’s current fee schedule and conduct an in-depth phone assessment to learn more about your fees. You will receive a presentation quality document illustrating how your fees compare with other utilities. Also included will be my recommendations for revising any existing fees and suggestions of new fees you should consider charging. An on-site presentation of the report can also be arranged for an additional fee, plus travel expenses.

If you are interested in this special offer, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or e-mailing me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com. Remember, the discounted special offer is only available to the first five people who respond.

Click here to subscribe to my free, bi-weekly e-mail newsletter...

© 2015 Gary Sanders