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

Are you tracking non-revenue water?

Does your utility track non-revenue water (NRW)? Non-revenue water is the term that replaces what was formerly called water loss reporting.

Graphic courtesy of Tata & Howard – www.tataandhoward.com

What is non-revenue water?

Non-revenue water is defined as your total system input volume (either water produced or purchased) less billed consumption.

From the chart below you can see that your system input volume falls into one of two categories – authorized consumption or water losses. Each of these are then further divided into two sub-categories – authorized consumption into billed and unbilled authorized consumption and water losses into apparent and real losses.

Non- revenue water is the total of unbilled authorized consumption, apparent losses, and real losses.

Let’s analyze each of these in more detail…

Billed authorized consumption

This is pretty straightforward – this is what your utility is in business to do! Billed authorized consumption can be either metered or unmetered, but it is accounted for and you (hopefully) get paid for it!

Unbilled authorized consumption

Unbilled authorized consumption can also be either metered or unmetered. Unbilled metered consumption would include your own facilities if you don’t bill yourself. Examples of unbilled unmetered consumption would be flushing lines or the fire department drawing water from hydrants in your system.

Apparent losses

Apparent losses are also broken down into two types – unauthorized consumption and customer meter inaccuracies and data handling errors. Unauthorized consumption is self-explanatory – it’s stolen water or any other consumption without the utility’s authorization.

Customer meter inaccuracies includes meters slowing down over time due to wear and tear. Remember, meters are like people – they slow down, not speed up, as they get older! Metering inaccuracies could also be due to failing to install a compound meter for a multi-unit apartment building and not registering low flows during off-peak times.

Data handling errors would encompass such things as meters that are billed using the wrong billing units. For example, if a meter is read in thousands of gallons but billed in hundreds of gallons, the apparent loss is a factor of 10.

Real losses

Real losses are further defined as leakage in transmission and distribution mains, leaks and overflows from storage tanks, and service connection leaks up to the meter.

Leaks in transmission, distribution, and service lines are what first comes to mind for most people when they think of water loss, but leaks and overflows from storage tanks must also be considered.

AWWA resources

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) offers free water audit software to assist with accounting for non-revenue water. They also offer a concise, three page document describing water audits with definitions and performance indicators to help explain the process.

Need help getting started?

If you need help getting started with performing a water audit, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com and I can put you in touch with consultants who specialize in this area.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Consumer Expectations & Experiences

I’ve written in past years about the Fiserv Billing Household Survey, which describes consumer trends in paying bills. You can read those articles from 2013, 2015, and 2016.

I’ve been checking periodically to see if Fiserv released a similar survey for 2017, but can’t locate one. However, I did find a research paper, Expectations & Experiences | Consumer Payments, from April, 2017. You can download the paper from this link. Downloading requires your name and contact information but, from experience, I can assure you they won’t spam you!

Highlights from the paper

Here are some highlights from the research paper I think utilities would do well to pay attention to:

  • 74% of online banking users use online bill pay (page 3)
  • In the 30 days prior to the survey, the number one reason consumers used online banking was to pay bills (page 4)
  • 79% of consumers are satisfied with online bill pay (page 6)
  • Convenience is the number one reason consumers use either their bank’s online banking bill pay service or online bill pay directly from billers (page 7)
  • 76% of consumers say real-time payment delivery is at least somewhat important (page 9)

What does this mean for your utility?

Clearly, the trend is towards paying bills online, whether that means using your online bill pay site or your customer using their bank’s bill pay service.

If you don’t already offer online bill pay, I recommend you move as quickly as possible to start offering it.

If you do offer online bill pay through a third party, and it’s not fully integrated into your billing system (i.e. you have to import payments the next day), I encourage you to investigate a fully integrated online bill pay solution.

The final takeaway is, if you are still receiving paper checks when your customer pays using their bank’s bill pay service, to consider using a payment consolidator to receive those checks electronically.

Are you offering all the latest payment options?

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re offering the most popular payment options, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to discuss how a business review could benefit your utility.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Looking back on 2017 and ahead to 2018

As 2017 winds to a close, let me be one of the first to wish you and yours a Happy New Year for 2018!

This issue marks the seventh anniversary of the Utility Information Pipeline! About seven and a half years ago I had the crazy idea of writing a newsletter to share some of my collected wisdom and experiences from my then nearly 30 years of working with utility business offices.

With encouragement from co-workers and, most importantly, my wife, the Utility Information Pipeline was launched. Here we are, seven years and 171 issues later!

When I first started, I had a ready supply of ideas to write about. Now, seven years later, I’ve used all those ideas (and more!) and have to work a little harder to find inspiration. Some weeks, a conversation with a customer or prospect or a recent listserv post will serve as the source of that week’s newsletter. Other weeks, I have to dig a little deeper. So, if you have ideas or suggestions for a future topic, please feel free to email me.

If you have co-workers or colleagues from other utilities who you feel would benefit from reading this newsletter, please take a minute and forward this to them and encourage them to subscribe.

Looking back on 2017

Listed below are the top five most frequently viewed blog posts in 2017, based on page views:

  1. How much is your late fee?
  2. What are these barcodes on my bills?
  3. Do you have a cash handling policy?
  4. What is your leak adjustment policy?
  5. Intelligent Mail barcodes – are you ready…?

The top five posts from 2017 include:

  1. Invitation to participate in 2017 Utility Fee Survey
  2. Have you considered a third party convenience fee?
  3. 5 easy ways to get more bank draft customers
  4. What should your customer service policy include?
  5. 2017 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

Looking ahead to 2018

The coming year will bring about the second bi-annual Utility Staffing Survey. The Utility Staffing Survey, like the Utility Fee Survey in odd number years, will become a regular feature in even numbered years.

As time permits, I continue to update my personal website – www. garysandersonline.com. I’m hoping to unveil some new tools for utilities there this year, as well.

As always, If you have ideas or suggestions for a newsletter topic, please feel free to email me.

Is this a good time to consider a business review?

The dead of winter is sometimes the best time to conduct a business review, when things tend to slow down some. If you’ve been considering a business review as an internal check-up, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to discuss a time that’s convenient for you.

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© 2017 Gary Sanders

Should you accept echecks…?

So you’ve got your online bill pay system in place and now you’re faced with what payment methods to offer. This includes which credit cards to accept and, more importantly, whether or not to accept echecks.

What is an echeck?

Echeck payments provide your customers the opportunity to enter their bank routing and account numbers and submit a payment to be electronically transferred from their bank account. This process is essentially the same as a bank draft, except the customer initiates the process rather than your office sending an ACH file to the bank.

Advantages of echecks

First, let’s examine why you might want to accept echecks. For starters, transaction fees are generally lower for echecks than credit cards. This means, if your utility absorbs the cost of processing online payments without charging a convenience fee, it costs you less to process an echeck than a credit card payment. If you charge a third party convenience fee, your customer will pay less than if they were to pay using a credit card.

Another reason to consider accepting echecks is some customers have checking accounts but no debit card so, without the echeck option, they wouldn’t be able to pay online.

Disadvantages of echecks

As was posted last week on one of the listservs I follow, echecks are subject to being returned if the customer incorrectly enters the echeck information.

This is because, unlike credit cards, there is no validation of the routing or account numbers as your customer is entering the payment. Likewise, there is also no verification of funds availability.

What this means is, unfortunately, echeck transactions are subject to honest mistakes in entering the information or, in some cases, outright abuse. I have had utilities tell me they are certain they have had customers intentionally enter erroneous echeck payments just prior to cut-off day to avoid being disconnected. This can work to the customer’s advantage if your returned check fee is less than your cut-off or reconnect fee.

The only real solution is to not accept echeck transactions and encourage your customers to use a debit card to pay from their checking account.

A reminder for North Carolina utilities

If you work for a North Carolina water utility, you should have received an invitation from the Environmental Finance Center to participate in a Utility Management Survey conducted by the EFC and North Carolina League of Municipalities.

If you, or someone at your utility, didn’t receive this invitation, please email the EFC directly at efc@sog.unc.edu and they will provide you with the specific survey link for your utility.

Should you offer additional payment options?

Do you ever wonder if your office should offer additional payment options? 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