2018 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. 82 utilities, representing 20 states, ranging in size from 134 to 90,000 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

In terms of office staffing, the real distinction in time savings in only between manually entering readings or importing them from some sort of automated reading process. However, unlike two years ago, this year’s survey did 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. However, this year’s survey included 16 utilities that still enter meter readings, up from only five two years ago. Surprisingly, three of these utilities were in the upper 50% of most efficiently staffed offices. The others were all within the bottom third of 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).


 

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 three and 27 of the top 32 most efficiently staffed offices use an outsource printer to print their bills. On the other hand, only four of the 15 least efficiently staffed offices outsource their billing 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, 14 of the 15 most efficient utilities automate the mail payment process in some way, while 16 of the 21 least efficient utilities manually enter mail payments.


 

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, 5 of the 19 most efficiently staffed offices have a person in the office take 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.
 

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

2018 Utility Staffing Survey Results – Part I

For the past few months, I’ve been conducting the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey. This survey has become a biennial survey, alternating years with the Utility Fee Survey. The initial Utility Staffing Survey was in 2016 and, for sake of comparison, here are the results from that survey:

This is the first of two Utility Information Pipeline issues publishing the results of the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey. This issue will examine demographics of the survey respondents, staffing levels, and factors outside the control of the utilities. The next issue will examine staffing levels and practices each utility can control, such as such as payment processing and bill printing.

Demographics of survey respondents

82 utilities, representing 20 states,ranging in size from 134 to 90,000 active accounts participated in the survey. Click on the links below to see charts of the various demographic data for the survey respondents:

Number of responses by state

Size of utilities responding

Size of utilities under 20,000 accounts responding

Types of utilities responding

Services provided by responding utilities

Accounts per employee

To arrive at an accurate index to compare utilities of differing sizes and billing frequencies, I came up with the number of accounts billed annually per employee. This formula multiplied the number of active accounts by the number of times each account is billed annually (12 for monthly billing, 6 for bi-monthly billing, 4 for quarterly billing, and 3 for three times a year billing) then divided that product by the total number of office employees. The higher the result, the more efficient the office should be.

The results ranged from 300 to 46,957 as represented by the graph below (clicking on any of the graphs will open a larger image in a new window).

One disclaimer applies. Two of the top five most efficient offices are local governments where payments are taken in a different department, so their staffing numbers do not include cashiers.

Annual customer turnover

I wondered if the turnover in customers would be a factor in how efficiently offices are staffed, so the survey asked how many applications for service (including routine move in/move outs and new construction) each utility processes per year.

Some utilities billing only property owners, and those will have a much lower turnover rate than utilities billing tenants.

Not surprisingly, the annual turnover rates ranged widely, from .05% to 45.63%. On the low end is a utility in a predominately rural area that only bills property owners. On the high end is a city with a large military installation nearby that bills tenants.

This year, unlike two years ago, there is a slight correlation between annual turnover rates and office efficiency. Of the 15 most efficiently staffed utilities, only four of them have annual turnover rates over 10% and only one of those is over 15%.

Major services billed

The final variable I examined for this issue was major services billed (water, sewer, electric and natural gas) looking for a correlation between the number of services billed and office staffing. I only considered the major services, because other services, such as garbage, stormwater, or area lights, generally are billed as flat-rate services and are not nearly as labor intensive to bill.

As was the case in 2016, utilities billing multiple metered services require more staff than those billing for only a single metered service. This was even more convincing this year, as 31 of the 32 most efficient offices bill for only one metered service, as shown below. The one anomaly also happens to be one of the utilities mentioned above that doesn’t collect payments.

Next issue

The next issue will analyze staffing levels and labor saving practices each utility can control, such as automation and outsourcing.

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 email newsletter...

© 2018 Gary Sanders

Early observations from the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey

As you know, the last issue of the Utility Information Pipeline was an invitation to participate in the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey. In addition to asking questions about the number of staff in various positions and how your office handles labor intensive practices such as payment processing and bill printing, the survey also includes questions about what percentage of payments are received by various methods.

Early survey results

Of the responses to the survey received so far, 25% of the respondents who supplied answers to the percentage of payments received by payment method responded with 0% for bank drafts!

I’ve written before about how bank drafts are the easiest way to collect payments and even offered suggestions for how to get more customers to sign up for bank drafts, not once, but twice!

When I advocate for bank drafts, I’m talking about sending an ACH file from your billing system to the bank. I’m not referring to going to your bank’s website and changing the amount to be drafted for each customer each month and I’m definitely not talking about filling out paper drafts by hand!

When I started in this business in the early 1980’s, it wasn’t unusual for a utility clerk to have a drawer full of rubber banded stacks of preprinted bank drafts that looked much like blank checks. The clerk would have to date the form and fill in the amount to be deducted from the customer’s account. Believe it or not, I recently encountered a utility still doing bank drafts this way!

Why aren’t you accepting bank drafts?

Knowing how easy it is and what a time saver bank drafts are, I’m frankly surprised when I encounter a utility that doesn’t accept bank drafts.

If your billing software won’t allow you to process bank drafts, it’s past time to replace you software!

If your bank won’t accept an ACH file, it’s time to find a new bank!

If it’s your own reluctance holding you back because “that’s the way we’ve always done it“, trust me when I say once you’ve implemented bank drafts you’ll be glad you did it!

Complete the Utility Staffing Survey

If you haven’t yet completed the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey, please click here to complete the survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. The results will be published in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Please feel free to share this survey with your peers at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey and for sharing it with other utilities.

2018 rates dashboard for North Carolina

I’ve written in the past about resources, including the Environmental Finance Center at UNC. The EFC has just released the North Carolina Water And Wastewater Rates Dashboard for 2018. This dashboard contains rates for 495 utilities in North Carolina.

Is your office offering 21st century payment options?

If you’re not currently offering bank drafts, or think your office is otherwise behind the times with the payment options you offer, 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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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Invitation to participate in the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey

Have you ever wondered if your office is understaffed…?

Do you need to justify a new position to management…?

Here’s your chance to find out!

You’re invited to participate in the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey. The survey will examine staffing levels and how your office handles labor intensive practices such as payment processing and bill printing.

2016 survey results

I conducted a similar survey in 2016 and you can review the results here:

The Utility Staffing Survey is a biennial survey, alternating years with the Utility Fee 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 Utility Staffing Survey

Please click here to complete the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. I will publish the results in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Please feel free to share this survey with your peers at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey and for sharing it with other utilities.

Could your office operate more efficiently?

If you think your office is understaffed or could run 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 your utility.

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

© 2018 Gary Sanders

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