What are you missing with third party online bill pay?

One of the earliest Utility Information Pipeline issues (it was newsletter #12 and this issue is #187) dealt with the advantages of a fully integrated online bill pay system. Much has changed in the seven years since that issue was published and the topic is worth revisiting.

A good, fully integrated online bill pay system is like a Swiss Army knife – one tool that serves many purposes.

Do you offer online payments?

The most important question is are you offering online payments? If the answer is “no”, the obvious response is “why not?” Second only to bank drafts, online payments are the easiest way to accept payments. Especially if you charge a third-party convenience fee, because your customer pays the full price of processing the credit card transaction.

Even if your software vendor doesn’t offer online bill pay, there are many third-party options available. If a third party is your only option, I encourage you to consider it.

However, if your software vendor does offer a fully integrated online bill pay option, and you’re not taking advantage of it, here are some of the features you might be missing.

Real time integration

Third-party online bill pay vendors generally fall into one of two categories – companies whose primary line of business is payment processing and outsource print vendors. In the first case, an updated file with customer balances is usually provided to the third party once a day. Outsource bill print vendors who offer online bill pay generally rely upon the balance provided in the most recent bill print file.

The obvious weakness of either of these options is out-of-date information. In the first situation, payments made earlier in the day aren’t reflected in the balance. The classic case is a customer pays the bill in the morning and then, not knowing a payment has already been made, their spouse pays it again later in the day. The online bill pay vendor scenario is even worse – no adjustments or payments made all month are reflected in the balance.

A fully integrated online bill pay system solves this dilemma because payments are logged in real time and the customer’s balance is always up-to-date, eliminating the chance of overpayments on an account.

Additionally, third party systems require a file of payments to be imported the next day. This isn’t necessary with a fully integrated system because the payments are logged in the system as they happen.

History viewable online

Third-party providers generally provide little more than the customer’s balance and due date. A fully integrated online bill pay system should display billing history, payment history, and usage history.

The more information your customers can find online, the less they need to call your office for assistance, reducing the call burden on your customer service staff.

Customer portal

Over the years, fully integrated online bill pay systems have evolved into customer portals where customers can do much more than just pay bills and view history.

If you offer paperless billing, also called ebilling (and you should!), a fully integrated customer portal allows your customers to change their email addresses as desired, again reducing calls to your customer service staff.

Additional options provided by some customer portals include updating address and contact information, applying for service, initiating turn-off service orders, and sending messages to customer service.

Is your online bill pay system doing all it can for you?

Are you trying to determine if an online bill pay system is the right decision for your utility? 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 help.

Water and Wastewater Utility Management Survey results webinar

The 2017-2018 North Carolina Water and Wastewater Utility Management Survey is now complete. This survey was conducted by the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government and the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) and covered the management and long-term planning practices and policies of North Carolina drinking water and wastewater utilities.

The results will be presented in a webinar, this Thursday, August 30, at 11:00 am ET. You can register to participate in the webinar here.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

What are the potential downsides to an automated meter reading system?

The last Utility Information Pipeline dealt with factors to consider when conducting a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis for implementing an automated meter reading system. In that article, I asked readers who have implemented AMR or AMI systems to share their experiences.

The general manager of a rural water utility, a long-time newsletter subscriber, emailed me and relayed some of the issues his utility has faced in implementing a drive-by automated meter reading system. This issue highlights some of the points he raised, along with issues I’ve heard from other utilities that could be considered potential weaknesses of an automated meter reading system.

Here are some of the potential downsides to implementing an automated meter reading system…

Damage to meters

The utility manager I mentioned above reports that, on average, between .7% and 1.0% of their meters are damaged each month. Damaged meters means incurring repair or replacement costs (which, for some utilities, may be charged to the customer if the customer’s negligence caused the damage). Damaged or malfunctioning meters won’t communicate with the radio receiver, requiring them to be read manually. Of course, this negates any labor savings achieved by automating the process for reading these meters.

Vegetative overgrowth

A frequent complaint of utilities using radio read meters is these meters can become overgrown by grass, weeds, or nearby bushes and shrubs. This poses a problem when the meter must be visited, either for a routine turn-on or turn-off or for disconnection for non-payment.

Faulty meters

Many utilities report receiving defective meters from the meter manufacturer. If this is a manufacturing defect, it can affect many meters received in a single shipment. Defective meters require troubleshooting and, once it has been determined the meter is at fault, replacement. This requires additional time from the utility’s field service personnel, mitigating some of the labor cost savings of not reading manually.

Not “lifting the lid” each month

One of the misgivings I hear most often from utilities about moving to either an AMR or AMI system is each meter is no longer visited each billing period. When reading meters manually or with handhelds, the meter reader must visit every meter (and lift the lid for water meters) each month. This allows the meter reader to visually inspect each meter on the route and note any issues or possible damage to the meter. To mitigate this impact, I know of utilities with a policy of reading a portion of their meters manually each billing period to insure each meter is visited once a year.

Resistance from customers

Some utilities have experienced pushback from customers who consider a meter that measures their usage at frequent intervals to be an invasion of privacy. Others have concerns about the potential health impact of being subjected to additional radio waves. Even though these concerns may be easily dismissed by those who are knowledgeable about radio read systems, they can be very real to your customers. So real that some states require utilities to allow reluctant customers to opt out of having a radio read meter installed at their home.

I’d love to hear your experience

If you’ve upgraded to an automated meter reading system, whether AMR or AMI, I’d love to hear your version of the pros and cons of implementing the system. Please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or email me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com. I’d like to schedule a time to talk with you about your experience.

Is an AMR or AMI system for you?

Are you trying to determine if moving to an automated meter reading system is the right decision for your utility? If so, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to learn how a customized ROI analysis or business review could help.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders