Is this really poor customer service…?

Recently, I was presenting my Improving Revenue Collections for Utilities presentation to the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water Fall Conference.

Part of my presentation deals with offering additional payment methods, such as bank drafts, online bill pay, and IVR payments. While discussing these, I stress how important it is to offer convenient ways for customers to pay without visiting the office.

Audience concern

About midway through my presentation, a gentleman on the back row raised his hand to voice an objection. This gentleman works in the industry, but not for a utility, and his concern was something to the effect of “it sounds like you are advocating for utilities to be less customer friendly by encouraging their customers not to come to the office to pay.”

My response

I explained that, quite the opposite, I firmly believe in – and advocate for – utilities providing outstanding customer service. I went on to explain that some customers, especially millennials, actually prefer not to interact in person.

By offering a fully integrated online bill pay system where customers can research their billing and usage history and make payments, your utility is actually providing an invaluable customer service. By doing so, and thereby reducing the number of calls or visits to your office, you actually free up staff time to more effectively deal with customers who have more serious issues.

By devoting enough time to adequately research and assist customers with excessively high bills or to set up a payment plan, your utility is able to offer even better customer service. If your staff time is consumed with walk-in customers merely wanting to make payments, they won’t have the time to devote to those customers who truly need the attention.

Do you ever wonder…?

Do you ever wonder if your office staff spends too much time dealing with walk-in customers? If so, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a business review could benefit your utility.

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

© 2017 Gary Sanders

Have you considered a third party convenience fee?

When it comes to accepting credit card payments, there are two options regarding the fees associated with processing credit card payments. One is to absorb the fees as a cost of doing business and the other is to charge a convenience fee for credit card payments.

In the first case, your utility simply absorbs the cost and your customer only pays the full amount of the bill. In the second case, your customer pays a convenience fee, over and above the amount of the bill, and your utility pays the credit card fees from the convenience fee collected.

Some credit cards, such as reward cards and business cards, incur larger fees than others. Many utilities don’t want to incur the cost of credit card fees and they feel uncertain about charging a convenience fee, not knowing if the convenience fee will cover all the costs associated with accepting credit cards.

Third party convenience fees

A third option is third party convenience fees. If a third party provides your online bill pay or IVR service, such as Logics does with Logics WebPay and Logics PhonePay, the third party processor can charge the fee and your utility still receives the entire about amount of your customer’s bill. In this case, it is up to the third party to pay the associated fees from the amount they charge.

Additionally, convenience fees are not allowed by law in some states. If your utility is located in one of these states and you want to avoid the costs associated with taking credit card payments, third party convenience fees are the solution for you.

In office payments

Obviously, third party convenience fees can’t work for in-office payments because no third party is involved.

But, is there a way to charge a convenience fee for in-office payments?

One solution employed by some utilities is to install a payment kiosk in the lobby and direct customers who wish to pay by credit card to the kiosk. This need not be an expensive kiosk – it can be as simple as a retired desktop computer or a tablet device mounted in a frame so it can’t be stolen. The kiosk is configured to access only your online bill pay site and customers use this to pay by credit card in your office.

A side benefit of your customers using a kiosk in your office is they become familiar with your online bill pay site and may make future credit card payments from home.

Are you considering taking credit cards?

If your utility is considering accepting credit cards and you need assistance determining how best to go about it, 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.

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

© 2017 Gary Sanders

Save time processing bill pay checks

The last Utility Information Pipeline examined the Eighth Annual Billing Household Survey from Fiserv. One of the more interesting statistics from the survey was a graphic showing the preferred payment methods of online households.

The number one choice was paying online at your website. Number two was paying by check, followed closely by paying online at your customer’s financial institution’s website.

Online banking checks

When your customer pays online at their financial institution’s website, you recognize this because you likely receive a computer printed paper check with no bill stub included.

These online banking checks can be an annoyance because, as mentioned above, they arrive with no bill stub enclosed. This means you must rely on your customer to have entered their account number correctly. If not, time consuming research is required to locate the account number. Additionally, many customers, because they “paid online”, assume you will receive their payment immediately, not realizing a paper check must be printed and mailed.

I bank with Bank of America and they have recently changed their online bill pay process to more clearly identify which payments will be delivered electronically or by check. See the screen shot below for an example of a payment which will be delivered by paper check:

Online Banking Screenshot

Most banks don’t print their own online banking checks, preferring to outsource this process to a check processing service such as CheckFree or a division of MasterCard. These check processing services then print and mail the check to your office. However, if they detect additional checks scheduled to be mailed to your utility in the next day or two, they will often hold all these checks to mail in one large envelope, further delaying the delivery of your customer’s payment.

Electronic payment delivery

These check processing services deliver payments electronically to large volume payees such as large utilities, credit card and mortgage companies, but typically print checks for smaller volume recipients.

Fortunately for smaller utilities, there are payment processing vendors who expedite the process by aggregating payments from the check processors, deposit the funds in your account, and provide a file to be imported into your billing software.

Let’s examine some of the benefits of using an online banking check consolidator…

Improved cash flow

Rather than waiting a week, or longer, after your customer initiates payment to receive a check, with a payment consolidator you receive your funds much sooner, sometimes the next day.

Saves staff time

With a payment consolidator, you receive a file to be imported into your billing software. This saves the time of manually entering each payment.

If your customer entered an incorrect account number when setting up your utility as a payee, the payment won’t import correctly. Payment consolidators provide a way to enter the proper account number and have the system automatically correct the account number going forward. This saves your staff the time involved in researching account numbers each month.

Better customer relations

Because you receive the payment sooner, fewer customers receive late fees or are disconnected for non-payment, resulting in improved customer relations for your utility.

Are you interested in using a payment consolidator?

If you are still receiving online banking checks as paper checks, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com for more information about how a check consolidator could improve your operation.

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

© 2016 Gary Sanders

How to make your customers happier

For the last eight years, Fiserv, a global company in the financial services industry, publishes an Annual Billing Household Survey. This survey reports trends in how consumers receive and pay their bills.

Past Utility Information Pipeline articles referenced this survey in 2012 and 2014. The Eighth Annual Billing Household Survey is now available and this issue will highlight a few statistics from it.

Customers want choices

This graphic, from page 20 of the report, highlights how offering different billing and payment options impact customer satisfaction (clicking on any of the graphics will open a larger image in a new window):

Customer Satisfaction Factors
 

Multiple payment options

Almost as if it were written for the audience of this blog, consider this quote from the graphic on page 21 of the report:

“The expectation of multiple payment options does not vary depending on the type of biller. In fact, consumers expect a local utility to provide the same options as a national wireless carrier or cable provider.”

As the graphic shows, 79% of customers expect your utility to provide the same options as much larger national companies:

Expectation of Multiple Payment Options
 

Preferred payment options

According to the survey respondents, as shown in the graphic below from page 8 of the report, the majority of online households prefer to pay their bill at your website, ahead of paying by check:

Online Household Payment Methods
 
In third place is paying the bill online at the customer’s financial institution website. The text accompanying this graphic says:

“Between the Seventh and Eighth Annual Billing Household Surveys, there was a 72 percent increase in consumers making payments at both biller and financial institution websites. Paying bills at a financial institution’s site also grew significantly by 55 percent.”

Clearly, the trend is toward paying bills online, whether that is your website or the customer’s financial institution’s website. The next Utility Information Pipeline issue will deal with automating payments made by your customers using their bank’s online bill pay.

Paperless billing

The final statistic I want to highlight is how important paperless billing is becoming to customers. The graphic pictured below, from page 14 of the report, shows that 79% of households receive some of their bills electronically, and 25% receive all bills paperlessly.

Paperless Billing Preferences
 
In addition, only 22% have no interest in going paperless! Clearly, paperless billing is the way of the future.

Are you offering your customers the choices they want?

Are you offering your customers all the payment options they desire? Are you offering paperless billing? If the answer to either question is “no”, 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 learn how your office could better meet your customer’s needs.
 

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

© 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.

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

© 2016 Gary Sanders

Are you staying abreast of the latest trends…?

Two years ago, I wrote about the 2012 Fiserv Billing Household Survey and offering your customers payment choices.

2014 Billing Household Survey

In December, Fiserv released the updated 2014 Billing Household Survey slideshow. Below is an infographic highlighting several key points from the 2014 Survey. Clicking on the infographic will open a larger version from the Fiserv website.

Billing and Payment Options Positively Impact Customer Satisfaction and Loyalty

In this article, I’ve recapped some of the highlights of the 2014 Survey.

Multiple payment methods

According to the survey, the average household uses three different payment methods each month (slide 5) and offering multiple bill payment options increases customer satisfaction (slide 7).

Customers paying with a mobile device increased 69% from 2013 (slide 12). Over half of all tablet owners have used their tablet device to pay a bill (slide 16) and the most common way to pay a bill by mobile device is your website (slide 15).

What this says to me is, if you’re not offering your customers online bill pay, they aren’t going to be happy with you.

Late payments

36% of customers pay bills late for several reasons, and second only to cash flow problems is forgetting the due date (slide 8). Over 75% of customers say due date reminders increase customer satisfaction (slide 17).

Offering due date alerts can increase the chances of those same customers adopting e-billing (slide 18).

If you aren’t alerting your customers of an impending due date (and I’m not talking about old-fashioned printed second notices), you’re missing out on an opportunity for improved customer service.

Paperless billing options

Almost a quarter of all U.S. bills are sent electronically

Almost a quarter of all U.S. bills are sent electronically with no paper bill produced and nearly half of all customers indicate that receiving paperless bills increases customer satisfaction (slide 19).

As could be expected, the youngest customers are most interested in doing away with paper bills (slide 20). However, nearly half of all bill payers choose to receive a combination of paper and e-bills (slide 21).

Knowing the demographics of your customer base can help predict the adoption rate of offering paperless billing.

Need assistance?

If you have questions about offering additional payment options or improving the way you communicate with your customers, 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.

Still time to complete the 2015 Utility Fee Survey

Just a friendly reminder – if you haven’t yet participated in the 2015 Utility Fee Survey, there is still time 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.

Click here to subscribe to my free e-mail newsletter...

© 2015 Gary Sanders