How can your customers apply for service?

Do you require new customers to come to your office to apply for service?


 

Guarding against fraud

Allowing customers to apply for service online is a growing trend among utilities. As we examined in the last Utility Information Pipeline, guarding against fraud in the application process is one of the key components of a Red Flags Rule policy.

Verifying that your customer really is who he or she claims to be is the best way to prevent fraudulent applications. Most utilities do this by requiring the applicant to show photo ID and proof of residency (lease agreement or closing documents) for the address at which they are applying for service.

Why is this important?

If you base the amount of a security deposit on the applicant’s credit score, using a stolen ID could allow a potential bad debt customer to establish service with no deposit.

Additionally, if the applicant is a previous bad debt customer, using a stolen identity allows them to avoid detection of the bad debt when you perform a bad debt search.

Many businesses allow a utility bill in the customer’s name as proof of ID. If someone is able to fraudulently establish an account, they could easily use their bill from your utility to defraud other businesses.

How does applying online change this?

If you allow customers to apply online (as opposed to merely downloading an application form), how do you confirm they are who they claim to be? Sure, they can take a picture of their driver’s license with their smartphone and upload it to your website. But without visually verifying their identity against the driver’s license, how do you know it’s not stolen?

Some utilities will allow customers to apply online, but require them to visit the office in person within the first week of establishing service. By doing so, the utility has the opportunity to scan the customer’s driver’s license and attach it to their customer record.

How do you handle online applications?

How does your utility deal with online applications? Please take this quick poll.


 
Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the results in the next issue.

Does your application process need reevaluating?

Does your application for service process still involve handing a new applicant a clipboard to complete a paper application? If so, or if there are other ways you need to become more efficient, 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 evaluate how your office can be more efficient.

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© 2016 Gary Sanders

Is your website mobile-friendly?

Google has developed an online tool to determine if your website is mobile friendly. I encourage you to use it to test your website.

Why is it important to be mobile-friendly?

More Google searches now take place on mobile devices than desktop computers. This means your customers, and potential customers, are more likely to use a smartphone or tablet to search for your utility online than they are to use a computer.

You’ve gone to great lengths to be sure your website is informative, so why not insure it can be viewed equally as well from the devices your customers are most likely to use?

In addition to making sure your website is mobile-friendly, take a minute to verify your Google Places listing is up-to-date.

Take the Mobile-Friendly Test

All you have to do to use the tool is enter your website URL at https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/.

If your website passes the test, as this blog does, the results will look like this (clicking on the graphic will open a larger image in a new window):

Mobile-friendly test pass

If your website doesn’t pass the test, like the Logics website (don’t worry – we’re working on this!), the results will look similar to this:

Mobile-friendly test fail

If your site is not mobile-friendly, the rightmost column offers links with recommendations for remedying the situation and making your site mobile-friendly.

Not sure if your website is as informative as it could be?

Have you wondered if your website is as informative as it could be? I’m offering a complimentary review of your website tor the first five people who e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

Next issue – 2015 Utility Fee Survey results

The next Utility Information Pipeline will be the first of three installments with results from the 2015 Utility Fee Survey.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders

Do you reconnect after hours?

For customers who are cut off for non-payment, will you reconnect them after your office is closed?

Fee survey results

In a utility fee survey I conducted in 2012, only 41.7% of the responding utilities reconnect after hours.

If your utility is in the majority and doesn’t reconnect after hours, why should you consider doing so? Let’s look at a couple of good reasons…

It’s good customer service

Many of your customers are at work while your office is open and may come home to find their service disconnected. Sure, they didn’t pay their bill on time and now they have to pay a reconnect fee to be turned back on. But why not provide good customer service and avail them of the opportunity to have their service restored that evening?

There’s revenue to be made

The utilities I referenced above charge an after hours reconnect fee (over and above the normal reconnect fee) ranging from $20.00 to $185.00! In keeping with the concept of assessing fees to customers who use the service, why not charge enough to cover your costs?

Many utilities pay a minimum of two hours call-in pay for employees who are called back to work. If you set your after-hours reconnect fee high enough to cover two hours of overtime pay (plus benefits) and the fuel cost for the vehicle, you’ve covered your costs.

Automate the process

Imagine this scenario…

Your customer comes home to find their service disconnected and a door hangar informing them of why they were cut off. Printed on the door hangar is your office website. They log into your fully integrated online bill pay system, pay their bill and the system determines if they are paying within your after hours time frame. If they are, it offers them the opportunity to pay the additional fee and be reconnected that evening. Once they finalize the payment, an e-mail is sent to the on-call service technician’s cell phone.

How simple is that?

Do you need to review other policies?

Do you have other policies that need to be reviewed? Please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn more about how a business review could assist with reviewing your policies and procedures.

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© 2014 Gary Sanders

Do you offer your customers choices?

Do you offer your customers choices in how they can pay their bill? According to the 2012 Fiserv Billing Household Survey, 76% of American consumers use more than one method to pay their bills each month.

Infographic

The infographic below is from the survey and highlights several key trends. Clicking on the infographic will open a larger version from the Fiserv website.

How Americans Pay Bills

Let’s examine some of the key points illustrated by the infographic.

Customers use multiple payment methods

As mentioned above, 76% of consumers use more than one method to pay monthly bills. This could be due to personal preference or, more likely, to the unavailability of being able to pay some bills online.

More surprisingly, 20% vary how they pay bills each month, based primarily on availability of funds and due dates.

Online payments outpace check payments

For the last 11 years, check payments have steadily declined while online payments have more than quadrupled. 50% of bills are now paid online, split equally between using online banking and paying at the biller’s website.

As this trend continues, you can expect to see more payments being made at your website (if you offer online bill pay) and through online banking. If you aren’t receiving online banking checks electronically, your cash flow will suffer as more and more customers migrate from writing checks to paying bills through online banking.

Want more visitors to your website?

The number one reason given by consumers for visiting a biller’s website is to pay a bill online. If you’re not offering online bill pay, you’re missing out on this website traffic.

When was the last time you reviewed your payment options?

If you have questions about your existing payment options or would like assistance in exploring additional payment methods, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

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© 2013 Gary Sanders

Are you offering paperless billing…?

Are your customers asking if they can receive their bill electronically rather than receiving a paper bill in the mail?  Paperless billing (or e-billing) allows a utility to present its customers with bills in electronic from rather than mailing a traditional paper bill.

Cost savings

The most obvious reason to offer paperless billing is cost savings. The cost to mail a bill includes postage, the bill itself (postcard or full page), envelope for full page bills, any additional inserts (return envelope and bill stuffers), consumables (toner or printer ribbons) and labor to print and prepare bills for mailing.

If you outsource the printing of your bills, these costs are passed on to you from your outsource printer. If you print bills in-house, some of these costs are direct costs (postage, forms, consumables and envelopes). The rest are indirect costs (salary and benefits for the time involved in preparing bills to be mailed).

How much can we save?

For full page bills, the very best automation compatible presort discount is the 5-digit presort rate of $.35. This rate is only available if you mail your bills using CASS certification and all of your bills are mailed to a presorted five digit zip code. Postage rates increase for less specific delivery areas (3-digit zip prefix, AADC, etc). These rates compare to the full first class postage rate of $.45 if you don’t presort. For postcards, the 5-digit presort rate is $.229 and the full first class postage rate is $.32.

For purposes of illustration, let’s use $.50/bill for the total cost of mailing a full page bill. This includes postage, forms, supplies and labor. If you bill monthly, for every customer that elects to stop receiving a paper bill, you will save $6.00 per year!

Customer convenience

For many of your customers, the convenience of being able to receive their bill electronically is key. I can attest to this from personal experience. As someone who travels frequently for work, I have been receiving as many bills as I can electronically for several years. I also pay all of my bills using my bank’s online banking bill pay option. This means I can pay all of my bills while I’m traveling.

Customer adoption rates for e-billing will vary from utility to utility depending on the demographic of your customer base. If your customers make use of online bill pay or pay using IVR, chances are they would also enjoy the convenience of receiving their bill electronically.

Bill presentment options

With e-billing, utilities either attach an image of the bill to an e-mail or send an e-mail letting the customer know their bill is available to be viewed online. Each option has advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage of attaching the bill to an e-mail is the customer doesn’t have to login to a website to view their bill. The disadvantage is producing and attaching a PDF document to an e-mail and the lack of security in attaching a bill to an e-mail.

The advantage of viewing the bill online is requiring your customer to login, so the information is more secure. You can also post more than just the most recent bill online, giving your customers the added convenience of seeing previous month’s bills as well. While the customer is logged in to your website to view their bill, they should also be able to pay it without having to login to another site.

How do we get started?

The first step is to contact your software vendor to see if they offer a paperless billing solution. Once you have that in place, getting your customers to sign up is the next step.

The key to higher adoption rates is to target specific customer groups that would be most likely to take advantage of e-billing.  This includes those customers who pay using their bank’s online banking bill pay option, and those who use your online bill pay or IVR payment options. These customers have demonstrated that they are not intimidated by technology and are most likely to embrace paperless billing.

Another way to higher adoption rates is to ask! Have your customer service staff ask every new customer applying for service if they would prefer to receive an e-bill, just like they ask if new customers want to sign up for bank drafts. If you don’t ask every new customer if they want to sign up for bank drafts, you should! It’s the easiest way to collect payments.

If you have questions about paperless billing options, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

© 2012 Gary Sanders

Do you charge a meter reread fee?

I was recently involved in a training session with a group of customers, and one person complained about the number of rereads requested by their customers. She asked if any of the others in attendance charge a reread fee. Not surprisingly, none of them do. I say not surprisingly because the results of the Utility Fee Survey indicated only 18% of utilities do charge a reread fee.

Why don’t more utilities charge a reread fee?

Every utility I’m aware of that charges a reread fee does so only if the reread determines the initial reading was correct. If the customer’s concern that the reading was wrong is confirmed, no fee is assessed.

Unless your meter readers are extremely careless, in most cases the reread will verify the accuracy of the original reading. Your customer probably knows this when requesting a reread, but is likely frustrated over a high bill and requesting a reread is a way to vent that frustration.

Utilities that do charge a fee for rereading a meter report that many customers drop the request when they learn it may cost them. Performing a reread takes time for your office staff to process the initial request and communicate the results to the customer and for your field personnel to drive to the customer’s premise and reread the meter.

Why waste the valuable time of your staff with such nuisance requests when most of them are only going to confirm the original reading?

Teach your customers to read their own meters

Better yet, why not teach your customers to read their own meters? A number of utilities have great tutorials on their websites with step-by-step instructions for how to read a meter.

Lancaster County Water and Sewer District’s website has a great example of how to read a water meter. It also goes on to explain how they read meters using their drive-by AMR system.

The City of Columbia, Missouri website has a excellent example of how to read an electric meter. This example page also includes a very good description of what a kilowatt hour is.

These are both good examples of how your website can help your utility be more customer friendly.

If your customers are able to read their own meters, they won’t needlessly call your office to complain about readings that are valid.

Is your fee schedule up-to-date?

As with all fees, I am a strong proponent of insuring the fee you assess adequately covers the cost of providing the service. Keep in mind that fees, unlike rates, are charged only to those customers using the service. The fee you charge for performing a service, such as rereading a meter or disconnecting a customer for non-payment, should fully recover the cost of providing that service. If it doesn’t, all of your ratepayers, including low income families and senior citizens on fixed incomes, end up subsidizing those customers requiring the service.

If you haven’t reviewed your fees recently to insure you are adequately recovering your costs, I encourage you to do so. If you would like my assistance conducting a fee study, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

© 2012 Gary Sanders