3 ways to assist customers who can’t pay on time

Unless your utility is an anomaly, each month you have customers who, for a variety of reasons, can’t pay their bill on time.

But, before we get to that, here are the results of last issue’s poll regarding a loose coin policy:

accepting-coins

Payment Plans

The usual scenarios for customers having difficulty paying their bill range from wanting to extend their due date a few additional days to requesting a payment plan for repaying a very large bill over time.

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Let’s look at the three most common forms of payment plans utilities offer customers for additional time to pay their bills.

Extensions

Extensions are generally used to give customers a few additional days to pay after the due date. Some utilities will defer the late fee when granting an extension, but most use extensions to delay the cut-off process. Some utilities will still assess the cut-off fee (or whatever you call it), but not terminate service, while others will waive the fee provided the extension is paid on time.

Most utilities limit the number of extensions a customer may have in a given period of time (for example two in any year) and some will only grant extensions to customers with a good payment history. The results of the 2012 Utility Fee Survey revealed one utility charges a $5.00 payment extension fee.

Installment Service

Installment services allow you to divide a large outstanding balance into manageable amounts which are billed each month as part of the utility bill. This requires temporarily adjusting the outstanding balance off the account. As each monthly installment is billed, the outstanding balance is gradually added back to the account until it is fully repaid.

With an installment service, the account still qualifies for the cut-off list if the total bill, including regular monthly charges and the installment amount, is not paid on time.

If your billing software supports installment services, the service will be automatically deactivated once the final monthly installment is billed. Should the customer close the account prior to all of the installments being billed, the outstanding balance will be added to their final bill.

Payment Arrangements

Payment arrangements differ from installment services in that they are used when a customer wants to make multiple, prescheduled payments between billings rather than a single payment due with each bill.

Payment arrangements are a little more work to manage than installment services, but they provide your customers with more flexibility. If your billing software supports payment arrangements, it should allow you to schedule each promised payment date and amount. If your customer misses a scheduled payment, the software should detect this and notify you so you can take whatever action your policy dictates.

Are you offering payment plans?

If your utility doesn’t offer payment plans, or if the way you administer them seems awkward and time consuming, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a business review could help improve your operation.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

What do you call your cut-off fee?

If you are considering charging your cut-off fee to every account when the cut-off list leaves your office, as I advocated in the last issue, the next dilemma facing you will be customers who complain.

A common complaint heard from customers of utilities with this policy is “You haven’t cut me off yet, so how can you charge me a cut-off (or reconnect) fee?”. This leaves your customer service representatives in the uncomfortable position of having to explain that, even though the customer hasn’t been cut off yet, the fee still applies.

Alternative terminology

To avoid these kinds of potentially inflammatory conversations with customers, many utilities have changed what they call their cut-off fee. They have adopted alternative terminology such as “delinquent fee”, “non-payment fee”, or some equally creative term that doesn’t imply the customer’s service has been disconnected.

Fee Survey results

While “reconnect fee” and “cut-off fee” were still the most popular, the 99 utilities responding to the 2015 Utility Fee Survey call their cut-off fee 32 different terms! This is an marked increase from the 2012 Utility Fee Survey when there were only 20 different terms.

Here is a graph of the various terms and the frequency of each from the 2015 Utility Fee Survey (clicking on the graph will open a larger image in a new window):

Cut-off Fee Terminology

The Other category includes 20 additional terms not show on the graph. To view a table of all 32 terms and their frequency, please click here.

Is it time to change what you call your cut-off fee?

If your utility charges the cut-off fee as soon as it leaves the office and you still call it a cut-off or reconnect fee, I recommend you consider changing it to a more generic term.

Don’t miss your chance

In a recent issue, I introduced the Utility Staffing Survey. This survey is designed to determine what is adequate staffing for a utility office. If you haven’t already completed the survey and would like to participate, please click here to complete the Utility Staffing Survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. I will publish the results in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey. Please feel free to share the survey with your peers at other utilities.

Does your cut-off process need reviewing?

If your utility is considering updating your cut-off process, or if you think any other office process could be improved, 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.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

When do you charge your cut-off fee?

I’ve written about when to charge the cut-off fee in a previous article about cut-off policies, and even devoted a full article to the topic. However, it’s been four years since the last article and I think this is a topic that merits revisiting.

Recently, I’ve done sales presentations for a few utilities that still charge the cut-off fee only to accounts that have been cut off, rather than charging it to every account on the cut-off list when the list leaves the office.

Cut-Off List

Fee Survey results

In the 2015 Utility Fee Survey, 71.9% of the utilities that cut off for non-payment charge the cut-fee as soon as the cut-off list leaves the office. I’m pleased to note this was an increase of 10% from 61.9% of the utilities responding to the 2012 Utility Fee Survey.

But this still means that nearly 30% of utilities aren’t charging the cut-off fee to everyone on the cut-off list when it leaves the office. My goal is for 100% of utilities to adopt this policy!

Let’s look at some of the reasons why I believe so strongly in charging the cut-off fee to all accounts at the same time…

It’s more equitable

Customers on the cut-off list have avoided every opportunity to pay their bill. Most utilities process the cut-off list in the same order each cut-off period. Once the first customers start getting cut off, the underground network that seems to exist in every utility’s service area kicks in and customers start showing up to pay.

Is it really fair to extend some customers a few more hours because they are toward the bottom of the cut-off list?

Charging the cut-off fee to all customers at the same time also removes the field service technician from the uncomfortable position of a customer pleading for time to get to the office before being disconnected.

Avoids confusion in the office

If every account has already been assessed the cut-off fee, there is no need to radio or call the field technician each time a customer on the cut-off list comes in to pay. This eliminates confusion in the office and allows the field service technicians to be more productive.

More efficient process

Administratively, it’s much easier to apply the cut-off fee to every account automatically rather than manually adding it to each account as they come in to pay.

Also, if you offer on-line bill pay, there is no way for the on-line bill pay website, unlike a cashier when paying in person, to know if the customer has been cut off or not. To solve this, some utilities don’t allow customers on the cut-off list to pay online. How inefficient is that?

More revenue

Finally, by assessing the cut-off fee to every account, your utility will generate more revenue from cut-off fees. What utility wouldn’t want that?

Don’t miss your chance

In the last issue, I introduced the Utility Staffing Survey. This survey is designed to determine what is adequate staffing for a utility office. If you haven’t already completed the survey and would like to participate, please click here to complete the Utility Staffing Survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. I will publish the results in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey. Please feel free to share the survey with your peers at other utilities.

Could your cut-off process be more efficient?

If your office is still charging the cut-off fee to only those accounts who are actually cut off, or if you think your cut-off process could be more efficient in general, 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.

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© 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.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

2015 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part II

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

 
 
 

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

Last week’s issue summarized the demographics of the survey respondents as well as water and sewer tap and impact fees. Today’s issue deals with delinquent fees and policies. Next week the third and final survey results issue will recap all 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

Late fees

Of the 106 participating utilities, 104 charge a late fee. As shown by this graph, charging a late fee as a percentage of the bill is the most popular method (clicking on the any of the graphics will open a larger image in a new window):

Type of Late Fee Charged

Surprisingly, compared to the 2012 Utility Fee Survey, utilities charging a percentage is down just over 10% (57.7% vs. 67.8%), while those charging a flat amount is up nearly 9% (32.7% vs. 24.1%).

Utilities that assess the late fee as a percentage charge from 1% to 10%, with 10% being by far the most popular, as this graph depicts:

Late Fees Percentage

Late fees range from $2.00 to $45.00 for utilities that charge a flat amount. (The utility that charges $45.00 does so in lieu of charging a reconnect fee.) This graph illustrates the late fee flat amounts:

Late Fees Flat Amount

Eight of the utilities charge a hybrid late fee – a combination of a percentage with a minimum amount. Here is a graph showing what they charge:

Late Fees Percentage with Minimum

Cut-off fees

Seven of the 106 utilities do not cut off for non-payment. All of the 99 that do cut off for non-payment charge a cut-off or reconnect fee as a flat amount, ranging from $10.00 to $150.00 as shown below:

Cut-Off Fee Amounts

Of the 99 utilities that cut off for non-payment, 71 of them (representing 71.9%) assess the cut-off fee as soon as the cut-off list leaves the office. I’m pleased to note that the percentage of utilities charging the cut-off fee immediately is up 10% from the 2012 Utility Fee Survey.

Cut-off fee terminology

As more utilities adopt this best practice of charging the cut-off fee as soon as the cut-off list leaves the office, many are finding that terms such as “cut-off fee”, “disconnect fee” or “reconnect fee” are becoming outdated. For that reason, the survey asked what each utility calls its cut-off fee. The results are displayed in the following chart:

Cut-off Fee Terminology

For the number of responses, including the 22 terms included in the “other” category, please click here.

As you can see, reconnect fee and cut-off fee are still the most popular terms, but many utilities have adopted terms that do not refer to cut-off or reconnection. Calling your cut-off fee “delinquent fee” or “non-payment fee” or any of the other terms that do not imply cut-off or reconnection helps to avoid the inevitable arguments with customers who must pay the fee but have not been cut off.

After hours reconnect fees

Of the 99 utilities that cut off for non-payment, 51 of them (representing 51.5%) will reconnect after hours and charge a fee for this service.  41 of the 51 utilities (or 82.4%) will reconnect anytime after regular office hours. The remaining 10 utilities will only reconnect during selected time periods as shown below:

After Hours Reconnect Times

After hours reconnect fee amounts range from $15.00 to $250.00 as shown by the following graph:

After Hours Reconnect Fees

Next week’s issue

Part III – August 18, 2015

Next week’s final survey results deal with any remaining fees, including application, returned check, meter reread, meter tampering and convenience fees.

A special offer

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.

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

© 2015 Gary Sanders

How does your security deposit compare?

In one of the listservs I subscribe to, a question was recently asked about what other utilities’ deposit policies are, including deposit amounts. While I think inquiring about other utilities’ policies is worthwhile, comparing the amount of their deposit without knowing their rates and business practices can be futile.

How much is an adequate deposit?

A sufficient deposit should protect your utility against bad debt customers who leave and never pay their final bill. How much that is depends on your average utility bill and your business practices.

Worst case scenario

The worst case scenario for a security deposit is that customer who ends up on the cut-off list and skips out without paying. Your utility is owed the original bill which caused the customer to be on the cut-off list, the next bill (if one has been issued) and any usage since the most recent bill. To illustrate this, let’s look at a hypothetical situation…

Days of exposure

I’ve written before about days of exposure, the total number of days of service you would be owed for by the worst case scenario customer described above. For our hypothetical customer, let’s assume:

  • meters are read on the 10th of the month
  • bills are mailed the last day of the month
  • bills are due on the 25th of the month
  • bills are considered delinquent 5 days after the due date
  • a final notice is mailed 5 days after the delinquent date
  • cut-off occurs 5 days after the final notice is mailed

Here is how that looks in a timeline (clicking on the graphic will open a larger image in a new window):

Days of Exposure Timeline

This adds up to 90 days of exposure (admittedly, this is a bit extreme, but it’s only for illustration purposes):

Assuming you bill each customer monthly, 90 days of exposure equates to three months of bills. You would then have to multiply your average monthly utility bill times three to determine how much an adequate deposit is.

If your deposit is less than this, then you are at risk for write-offs from bad debt customers.

Need assistance?

If your deposit policy needs updating or if you would like to explore ways to reduce your days of exposure, 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.

Last call for the 2015 Utility Fee Survey

I will be concluding the 2015 Utility Fee Survey soon, so if you haven’t yet participated, please take a few minutes to do so. Please click here to complete the survey. It should take less than five minutes to complete.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com or call me at 919-232-2320.

I’m looking for as much participation as possible in the survey, so please feel free to pass this on to your colleagues at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for your participation in the Utility Fee Survey.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders