I need your assistance!

A couple months ago I participated in a webinar designed to help bloggers grow their online audiences. One of the takeaways was to offer an incentive for subscribing, which I did with my free ebook, entitled “5 Surefire Ways to Save Time Processing Payments“.

Another takeaway was to develop a reader survey to learn more about my readers and what interests them.

Reader survey

I’ve taken the advice from that webinar and developed a short survey to gather input from my readers, such as you.

In addition to general demographic questions and inquiring about how you consume information, the survey includes open ended questions about this blog. Specifically, I’m interested to know what you like best about the Utility Information Pipeline and how I can improve it.

Can I highlight your utility?

From time to time, I publish a feature called Reader Spotlights where I highlight a utility that has implemented something I’ve written about. If you have a success story with a policy you’ve implemented or a procedure you’ve changed as a result of something you’ve read here, there’s a place to share that, as well.

Take the survey

To participate in the reader survey, please click here. Please accept my thanks in advance for taking the time to complete the survey.

Prefer to talk directly?

If you would prefer to share your thoughts directly, please feel free to give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

NRWA WaterPro Conference

Will you be attending the National Rural Water Association WaterPro Conference in Reno next week? If you will, or know someone who will be, please make plans to attend my presentation Improving Revenue Collections for Utilities at 4:00 pm next Monday, September 18.

If you are going to be there, please be sure to introduce yourself!

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

© 2017 Gary Sanders

2017 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

This is the last of three consecutive Utility Information Pipeline issues reporting the results of the 2017 Utility Fee Survey, an update to the original Utility Fee Survey in 2012 and the 2015 Utility Fee Survey. The survey was designed to research what fees utilities charge, how much they charge for each fee, and to see what changes have taken place in the last two years.

118 utilities, representing 19 states, ranging in size from 88 to 75,000 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.

The Utility Fee Survey has become a biennial survey, alternating years with the Utility Staffing Survey.

As was the case in each of the previous surveys, the results include too much information for a single issue. If you’re interested, here are the results from the 2012 and 2015 Utility Fee Surveys:

 

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part I

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part II

2012 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

 

2015 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part I

2015 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part II

2015 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

 

Returned check fees

Of the 118 participating utilities, only one does not charge a returned check fee. For the other 117 utilities, returned check fees range from $10.00 to $50.00, as this graph illustrates (clicking on any of the graphs will open a larger image in a new window):

Interestingly, of the 117 utilities who charge a returned check fee, only 64 (or 54.7%) charge the maximum fee allowed by their state. 27 utilities (representing 23.1%) charge less than the maximum allowed and 26 (or 22.2%) charge more than the maximum allowed.

If you’re interested in seeing how your fee compares to the maximum allowed for your state, here is a table with all 50 states.

Application fees

In one of the earliest Utility Information Pipeline issues, 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. This year, 56 of the 118 utilities (representing 47.9%) responding to the survey charge such an application or administrative fee. This is down from 51.9% in 2015 and 52.3% in 2012. These application fees range from $5.00 to $150.00 as shown below:

Transfer fees

This year, for the first time, the Utility Fee Survey asked how much utilities charge as a transfer fee for transferring service from one account to another. 52 of the 118 utilities (representing 44.1%) charge a transfer fee ranging from $5.00 to $100 as shown in this graph:

Meter reread fees

28 of the 118 utilities (or 23.7%) charge a meter reread fee if the customer requests their meter be reread. This is virtually unchanged from 2015, where 23.6% of responding utilities charged a meter reread fee. 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 $45.00 as this graph shows:

Meter tampering fees

91 of the 118 utilities (or 77.1%) charge a meter tampering fee. This is up from 73.6% in 2015 and 60.2% in 2012. Eleven utilities charge the actual cost of repairs or cost plus an administrative fee. Three charge a fee that depends on the type of meter tampering or damage done to the meter. Four more utilities recover their costs through the judicial system. Ten utilities have an escalating fee that increases with each meter tampering offense. The remaining 63 utilities charge a flat fee ranging from $10.00 to $1000.00 as shown below:

Of the ten utilities that charge an escalating fee, here are the charges for the first, second and third offenses:

Convenience fees

One of my earliest issues explained why I believe utilities should accept credit cards. Of the 118 utilities responding to the survey, 105 of them (or 89.0%) accept credit cards. This is an increase from 81.1% in 2015 and 62.5% in 2012, so credit card acceptance is quickly becoming a standard practice for most utilities. Of the 105 that do accept credit cards, 62 of these charge a convenience fee on at least one form of credit card payments as shown below:

This year, for the first time, the survey asked if the convenience fee is charged by the utility or by a third party. By a large margin, most convenience fees are assessed by a third party as shown here:

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 most do not charge the fee if it turns out the meter is, in fact, 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 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 special discount offer is only available to the first five people who respond!

NRWA WaterPro Conference

Will you be attending the National Rural Water Association WaterPro Conference in Reno? If you will, or know someone who will be, please make plans to attend my presentation Improving Revenue Collections for Utilities at 4:00 pm on Monday, September 18.

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

© 2017 Gary Sanders

Invitation to participate in 2017 Utility Fee Survey

You’re invited to participate in the 2017 Utility Fee Survey. I’m researching what fees different utilities charge and how much they charge for each fee.

2012 and 2015 Survey Results

I conducted similar surveys in 2012 and 2015 and you can review the results here:

The Utility Fee Survey will become a biennial survey, alternating years with the Utility Staffing Survey.

The results of the survey will be published in a series of upcoming e-mail newsletters. To be sure you receive the results of the survey, if you haven’t already signed up for my free e-mail newsletter, please click here to subscribe.

Complete the 2017 Utility Fee Survey

If you would like to participate, 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 hoping 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 2017 Utility Fee Survey.

Aging workforce seminar

A major issue facing management of all utilities, large and small, is an aging workforce. As more key employees approach retirement age, utilities across the country are having to face the issue of replacing the loss of institutional and operational knowledge these long-time workers hold.

Does your utility have a plan in place to deal with the aging workforce?

Upcoming seminar

The Utility Management Committee of the NC AWWA-WEA, of which I am a member, is sponsoring an Aging Workforce Issues – Best Practices Panel & Luncheon seminar. This seminar, originally scheduled for last October, has been rescheduled to Thursday, May 4 from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm.

If you are located within driving distance of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I encourage you to join us. If not, you can still participate in a live webcast of the seminar.

The seminar moderator is J.D. Solomon, PE, CRE, CMRP; Vice President of CH2M. The panelists are:

  • Rod Dones, Organizational Development & Learning Specialist, Charlotte Water
  • Tamara Byers, Human Resources Manager, Charlotte Water
  • Ed Kerwin, PE, Executive Director, Orange Water & Sewer Authority
  • Matt Bernhardt, Director of Public Works and Utilities, City of Gastonia
  • Courtney Driver, PE, Utilities Director, City of Winston-Salem

For more information, or to register for the seminar, please click here.

Is your fee schedule up-to-date?

If, after completing the 2017 Utility Fee Survey, you’re wondering if your fee schedule is up-to-date, 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 you prepare for the transition.

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

© 2017 Gary Sanders

What is an acceptable percentage of estimated readings?

I’m originally from upstate New York, where water meters are located in basements or cellars to keep them from freezing. The small town where I grew up operated a water system and, with limited staff, frequently estimated meter readings. My mother was aware of this and, after several billing periods without her meter being read, was convinced they were overestimating her usage. So she called and made arrangements for the meter reader to come and read her meter. Much to her chagrin, they had been underestimating her reading all those months and her next water bill was much higher than the bills she thought were already excessive!

 
Estimated meter reading
 

An inquiry from a colleague

Last year, I had a professional colleague contact me with the following questions:

“Do you by chance know if there is an industry standard for estimated meter reads?  I know you would want this number to be as low as possible but is there an industry target that would indicate a utility’s meter reading capabilities?”

My response was:

“I’m not aware of any industry standard for estimated meter readings. Off the top of my head, I would think anything greater than about 2% would be excessive unless there were extenuating circumstances (such as snow in an area like ours in North Carolina where utilities aren’t prepared to read in that kind of weather).”

This is where you get to help…

Previous Utility Information Pipelines have addressed meter reading best practices and alternating actual readings and estimates as a way of reducing costs, but none have addressed routine estimates.

In order to better answer my colleague’s question, I’ve put together a short survey asking how your utility handles estimated meter readings. Please take a few minutes to complete the survey by clicking here.

The results of the survey will be published in the next Utility Information Pipeline.

Do you need to review your meter reading practices?

If your meter reading could be improved upon, 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

What is your policy regarding loose coins?

You’ve probably read articles online or seen television news accounts of irate customers protesting a bill by paying entirely with coins. If you haven’t, just Google “coins as payment protest”. There’s even this story about a Michigan woman paying her entire $569.81 adjusted water bill with coins!

Listserv inquiry

A post from earlier this summer in a listserv I follow inquired if others in the listserv had policies prohibiting customers from paying with an excessive amount of coins. Apparently the poster has experienced this problem, or is at least interested in not experiencing it in the future!

Are you prepared to keep it from happening?

In an earlier Utility Information Pipeline, I wrote about a utility that doesn’t accept cash at all, so for them this wouldn’t be an issue. However, if your utility is like most I’m familiar with, you still accept cash and, without a policy to stop it, could be susceptible to an angry customer trying to pay with all coins.

Most banks won’t accept an excessive amount of coins for deposit unless they are rolled. So requiring any payment in coins (in excess of the amount of a roll of that denomination) to be rolled does not seem unreasonable. Also, entirely reasonable in my opinion, would be a limit to how much in rolled coins can be tendered for a single transaction.

How do you handle loose coins?

How does your utility deal with loose coins? Please take this quick poll.

 

Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. If you have a loose coins policy, please feel free to post the specifics of your policy in the comments. Click here to see the results.

Are your payment policies up-to-date?

If your payment policies are outdated, or if you think you could improve on how you take payments, 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.

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

© 2016 Gary Sanders

2016 Utility Staffing Survey Results – Part II

This is the second of two consecutive Utility Information Pipelines reporting the results of the 2016 Utility Staffing Survey. 73 utilities, representing 20 states, ranging in size from 200 to 80,000 active accounts participated in the survey.

Last week’s issue summarized the demographics of the survey respondents as well as staffing levels and factors outside the control of the utilities. Today’s issue deals with practices each utility can control, such as payment processing and bill printing.

In addition to asking the number of office employees, how many active customers, what services each utility bills, and annual customer turnover, the survey also asked how each utility handles various labor intensive processes.

Meter Reading Processing

Because this survey focused on office staffing, the meter reading question only distinguished between manually entering readings or importing them from some sort of automated reading process. The survey did not distinguish between whether the imported readings were from handhelds or an AMR or AMI system.

As expected, most utilities in the survey have automated their meter reading process, as only five of the responding utilities still enter meter readings. Somewhat surprisingly, two of these utilities were in the upper 50% of most efficiently staffed offices. The other three were all within the six least efficiently staffed offices, as represented by the graph below (clicking on any of the graphs will open a larger image in a new window).

Meter Reading Processing

Bill Printing

Bill printing and the related tasks required for preparing bills for mailing – separating postcards or folding and inserting full page bills, sorting, and traying the mail – are very labor intensive tasks.

Not surprisingly, the top six and 19 of the top 24 most efficiently staffed offices use an outsource printer to print their bills. On the other hand, only four of the 20 least efficiently staffed offices outsource their bill printing.

Bill Printing

Mail Payment Processing

Mail payment processing is quite possibly the most labor intensive process in most utility offices. For that reason, many utilities have sought to automate the processing of mail payments, either by scanning barcodes on the bill, or using a remittance processing system or a bank lockbox.

As anticipated, 27 of the 31 most efficient utilities automate the mail payment process in some way, while the bottom 10 and 20 of the 24 least efficient utilities manually enter mail payments.

Mail Payment Processing

Phone Credit Card Payments

The final area the survey asked about is phone credit card payments. This can be an extremely laborious process considering the customer service representative must look up the account, tell the customer how much is owed, take the credit card number and process the payment authorization and, finally, enter the payment in the system.

Somewhat surprisingly, 13 of the 26 most efficiently staffed offices have a person in the office take phone credit card payments.

Phone Credit Card Payments

Is your office adequately staffed?

If you think your utility is understaffed or could operate more efficiently, 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 determine this.

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

© 2016 Gary Sanders