utility information pipeline

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.

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© 2017 Gary Sanders

ZIP+4 and DPC explained

From time to time, I get questions about how the ZIP+4 and DPC (Delivery Point Code, previously known as Delivery Point Barcode, or DPBC) are assigned.

A previous Utility Information Pipeline addressed (no pun intended!) mailing address quality. That issue described how to look up a ZIP+4 and the corresponding Delivery Point Code, but it didn’t describe them. An earlier issue explaining Intelligent Mail Barcodes touched briefly on how they are assigned, but didn’t go into great detail.

What does a ZIP+4 represent?

Here is an illustration using a map of a random street in Raleigh (chosen simply because it is laid out in a traditional block, not with curved streets and cul-de-sacs, like many neighborhoods):


Frank Street is in Raleigh ZIP code 27604.

For residential addresses, the ZIP+4 represents the odd or even side of a block. In this example, the ZIP+4 is 27604-2017 for odd side of the 500 block of Frank Street and 27604-2018 for the even side of the block.

What does the DPC represent?

As you can see from the map, mail sorted to the ZIP+4 includes multiple addresses. For example 27604-2017 includes the odd numbered addresses from 501 Frank Street through 511 Frank Street.

To improve upon this, the US Postal Service introduced the DPC which, when appended to the ZIP+4, creates a unique 11 digit number for every residential address. The DPC is the last two digits of the street number (or the post office box for PO Box addresses). Thus, 501 Frank Street becomes 27604-2017-01 and 503 Frank Street becomes 27604-2017-03, creating a unique numbering scheme for every address.

I’ve actually done a data matching project for a customer using this. We linked county tax information to their utility billing database using the 11 digit ZIP+4 and DPC as the initial link between addresses in the disparate systems.

How good is your address quality?

If your address quality needs to be improved, 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.

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© 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

What should your customer service policy include?

Happy New Year!

Let me start by wishing you and yours a Happy New Year for 2017! 2017 marks the 6th anniversary of the Utility Information Pipeline and I look forward to another year of offering insights into how your utility can operate more efficiently and better serve your customers. As always, if you have suggestions or ideas of a topic for me to cover, please email me!

Last issue

The last Utility Information Pipeline included the results from a poll asking if reader’s utilities have a formal customer service policy. It went on to explain why I believe having one is important. I promised this issue would address what should be included in a customer service policy.

Elements of a formal customer service policy

Let’s take a look at some key items that should be included in a customer service policy…

Application for service

For starters, your customer service policy should include what is required of a customer applying for service. What forms of ID do they need to provide? Are they required to pay a security deposit or an application fee?

Security deposits

If you do require a security deposit for new customers, the amount of the deposit should be plainly stated in your customer service policy, as should any nuances in how the security deposit is determined.

Do you charge a different deposit for renters than homeowners? Do you perform a credit check to determine the amount of the customer’s deposit? Do you retain the deposit until the customer leaves or do you refund it for good credit customers? All of these should be clearly defined in your customer service policy.

Rates and fees

Your rates and fees should also be set forth in your customer service policy. In addition to rates for the services you provide, your customer service policy should also include any fees, such as returned check fees or any other fees you charge.

And, of course, be sure to update your customer service policy each time your rates and fees change.

Due dates and disconnection for non-payment

The section most often referred to in many customer service policies is the one dealing with late payments and disconnection for non-payment. Be sure your policy clearly states how the due date is determined and how much the late fee will be if not paid on time.

If your utility cuts off for non-payment, your policy should also accurately describe when an account is subject to disconnection and how the cut-off fee is charged.

Payment options

How many ways can your customers pay their bill? Do you charge a convenience fee for credit card payments? Can your customers pay their bill online? What must your customers do to sign up for bank drafts? All of these questions should be answered by your customer service policy.

Budget billing

Does your utility offer budget billing? If you do, your customer service policy should explain the details of how the monthly payment is calculated and the requirements for customers to sign up for budget billing.

Disputed billings

Your customer service policy should outline what options are available to customers who believe their bill was incorrectly calculated. It should also describe the details if you offer leak adjustments or summer sewer adjustments.

Do you have a formal customer service policy?

If your office needs assistance developing or updating your customer service policy, 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

Why don’t you have a formal customer service policy?

The last Utility Information Pipeline included a poll asking if reader’s utilities have a formal customer service policy. Here are the results of that poll (clicking on the chart will open a larger graphic in a new window):

Poll results

Surprisingly, half of the utilities who responded do not have a formal customer service policy. Of those that do, two thirds haven’t updated it in a long time, leaving just 17% who have a formal customer service policy and update it regularly.

Importance of a customer service policy

I’ve written previously about customer service policies, but have never written about why I believe it is important to have one.

Everyone knows the rules

A formal customer service policy sets forth your utility’s policies and procedures and lets customers know what is expected of them. It also provides guidelines for your employees to use when evaluating a customer’s situation.

Customers don’t like it (nor should they) when they perceive to be treated differently from other customers. Having a customer service policy insures all customers are treated fairly, including everything from how much of a security deposit they must pay to who is cut off for non-payment.

Staff empowerment

Having a customer service policy, and enforcing it for all customers, empowers your customer service staff to make routine policy decisions. No one likes to have their decisions overturned by their boss, especially if it appears to be an arbitrary or if favoritism is involved.

Employee morale improves when your staff knows they will be supported in enforcing your policies. Customer service representatives are empowered when they know management stands behind them and will treat all customers fairly.

Next issue

Now that you have a better understanding about why having a customer service policy is important, the next issue will go into more detail about what should be included in your policy.

Do you need assistance developing a customer service policy?

If your office needs assistance developing a customer service policy, 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...

© 2016 Gary Sanders

Utility Information Pipeline Newsletter

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Gary Sanders

I am the Senior Consultant with Logics, LLC in Raleigh, North Carolina. I have over 35 years experience developing and implementing utility billing and financial software and consulting with utilities and municipalities. My bi-weekly email newsletter draws from my experience in working with over 200 utilities and local governments to offer insight into how utilities can improve operations and better serve their customers. If you have a comment or a suggestion for a future email, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or sending an email to gsanders@logicssolutions.com