Is your utility losing credibility…?

Over the course of the next few Utility Information Pipeline issues, I’ll be analyzing and reviewing some of the trends I observed from the 2019 Utility Fee Survey. If you need a refresher, here are links to the three results issues for the 2019 Utility Fee Survey:

But before we start analyzing the data, let’s take a look at something else that stood out to me.

Generic email addresses

One of the things that surprised me about the survey responses is the number of utilities still using generic email addresses. By this, I mean an email address without a domain name specific to the utility. For example, xyzutility@gmail.com rather than jdoe@xyzutility.com.

Over the seven-year history of the Utility Fee Survey, the percentage of generic email addresses has dropped slightly, with the exception of a small uptick in 2017:

A bigger surprise

Even more surprising to me were the attendees from a recent utility conference where I presented my Improving Revenue Collections for Utilities presentation. A whopping 68.75% of the utility staff (this excludes board members and non-utility employees) attending the presentation had generic email addresses!

Branded email means credibility

A Verisign survey, dating back to September 2015, “found that 65 percent of consumers believe a company-branded email is more credible than a business using a free email account.” Even though your utility may not be a for-profit business, the need for credibility is no different!

If this was the case in 2015, I have to believe it’s even more important now – over four years later!

How to solve this

There’s an easy, low-cost way to solve this. First, secure a domain name for your utility. If you already have a website, you’ve got this step covered.

Next, signup for Google’s G Suite which provides branded email, shared calendars, and cloud storage for as low as $6 per user per month. You get the same easy-to-use email interface you may already be using for your personal email with a branded email address identifying your utility.

If you’re considering doing this, please contact me and I can provide you with a promotion code good for 20% off the first year of either the G Suite Basic plan or G Suite Business plan.

Questions about how to do this?

If you have questions about getting started with branded email addresses for your utility, please give me a call at 919-673-4050, or email me at gsanders@edmundsgovtech.com and I’ll be glad to assist you.

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

© 2019 Gary Sanders

A new way to draw your own maps

Five years ago I wrote about using Google Fusion Tables to create your own maps. Unfortunately, Fusion Tables will be “turned down” (isn’t that a pleasant euphemism for something that’s going to simply stop working?) on December 3 of this year.

But there’s another option

Fortunately, there is still a relatively easy way to create a map of locations for those of us who aren’t skilled Geographic Information System (GIS) users.

Google offers My Maps, which works much like Fusion Tables by letting you import a list of addresses and populating pins on a Google Map for each address. Follow along to see how easy it is to create a map…

Let’s create a map

Start by creating a CSV (comma-separated values) file or an Excel spreadsheet (it must be an .XLSX file) with the data to be imported and mapped.

In a real-world scenario, you might want to map meter reading routes or all the accounts on the cut-off list. For this example, I didn’t want to compromise a customer’s actual data, so I chose data that is readily available on the internet. I bank with Bank of America and know they have a list of banking locations on their website. I harvested the location data from the bank’s website, and using some of the data manipulation tools I wrote about recently, I converted the data into a pipe-delimited text file:

I then opened this file in Excel and added column headings, which are required by My Maps:

Your file can have the full address in one column (as this file does), or it can have separate columns for Address, City, State, and ZIP Code.

In order to show an address error for illustration purposes, I changed the address for Lynnwood Collection to a PO Box.

Now we’re ready to import the file and create your map. Start by going to Google My Maps – https://www.google.com/mymaps.

Click on CREATE A NEW MAP.

Click on Import.

Drag your Excel spreadsheet or CSV file to the window or click on “Select a file from your device” to import your file with addresses to be mapped:

Click the column (or columns) containing the address. This is what My Maps will use to locate the placemarks on the map:

Choose a column to identify the title of the markers on the map. In a real-world scenario, this might be the service address or name of the account. For my illustration, this is the bank branch name.

Now, click Finish and My Maps will create your map.

Once the file is imported and the map created, if you have any bad addresses (for example, PO Boxes) that can’t be mapped, this message will be displayed:

Click on “Open data table” to correct the addresses. A grid similar to this will be displayed:

The addresses with errors will be listed at the top of the data table. You can correct the error right in the data table, without having to fix your original input file and begin the process all over again.

By default, My Maps will draw the map with all the markers having the same color:

However, you might want to see different color pins on the map for different addresses. For example, different colors based on the services provided, or to distinguish between manual and radio read meters on a meter reading route. In my example, I want to be able to visually see the difference between full-service banks and ATM-only locations.

To do this, click on the Uniform style hyperlink:

From the window that pops up, change Uniform style to the field in your data you want to use to determine the color of the marker. In my sample data, this is the Type field:

Google will randomly assign the colors of the map pins, based on the criteria you specified. If you want to change the colors, click on one of them, then click on the paint bucket icon at the bottom of the window and select your desired color.

I chose purple for full-service banking centers, blue for ATM-only locations, and green for Bank of America Advanced Center, whatever that is!

Congratulations, you’ve created your map!

Now, if you want to share your map with others, you can do so by clicking the share button for your map:

Then select the method you want to use to share the map:

Questions about creating your map?

If you have questions about creating your map, please give me a call at 919-673-4050, or email me at gsanders@edmundsgovtech.com and I’ll be glad to try to assist you.

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

© 2019 Gary Sanders

Listservs and other resources

I’ve written in the past about resources I use to stay abreast of trends in the industry and to share my knowledge. I apologize in advance to those readers who aren’t based in North Carolina, because this issue is somewhat North Carolina-centric. North Carolina is where I live and has historically been where most of Logics’ customers are, so it’s the state I’m most familiar with. However, please don’t stop reading if you aren’t from North Carolina, because I’ve got a favor to ask of you later on.

Listservs I follow

If you’re not familiar with a listserv, once you’ve subscribed, you can ask a question of everyone on the listserv by sending an email to the listserv email address. Likewise, questions asked by others end up in your inbox and you can reply so everyone in the listserv sees your response.

Below is a list of the listservs I follow, in order of the most utility billing-related content:

  • NC Water listserv – topics dealing with water utilities, often related to utility billing and customer service.
  • NC Finance Connect – topics related to local government finance, occasionally includes utility billing and customer service.
  • NC City and County Manager’s listserv – topics of interest to city and county managers, rarely includes utility billing and customer service.
  • Virginia GFOA listserv – listserv for government finance professionals in Virginia, but with infrequent utility billing and customer service questions.

Why join a listserv?

I follow these listservs for two reasons. First, to lend my expertise when a question is asked for which I can provide an answer. Secondly, listserv questions are often a good source of ideas for newsletter topics. If someone has a question prompting them to ask how other utilities deal with that issue, it is often something I can elaborate on in a newsletter.

Rates dashboards

Another great resource is rates dashboards from the Environmental Finance Center at the UNC School of Government. The EFC has a series of rates dashboards for 18 states and Canada. To see if they have one for your state, you can check here, or below is a hyperlinked list of states, current as of the date of this newsletter:

You can use these rates dashboards to compare your utility’s rates to other utilities in your area, much like the Utility Fee Survey allows you to compare fees with other utilities.

“The book”

Speaking of resources and the UNC School of Government, Kara Millonzi, an attorney and professor at the School of Government, has written a book entitled Guide to Billing and Collecting Public Enterprise Utility Fees for Water, Wastewater, and Solid Waste Services. Written for utilities in North Carolina, this book answers many questions about what utilities legally can and cannot due. It cites the appropriate General Statute and case law, where applicable, to answer legal questions regarding billing and collecting for utilities in North Carolina.

If you work in utility billing in North Carolina and you don’t recognize this book cover,

do yourself a favor and click on it and order it now!

What resources do you use?

Are there similar resources you use when you need to find the answers to your utility billing questions? I would love to know what resources you use, especially if you are located outside of North Carolina. If there are listservs in your state, please feel free so share them by dropping me an email at gsanders@edmundsgovtech.com. Or, better yet, share them as a comment below so other readers can learn what resources you rely on.

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

© 2019 Gary Sanders

2019 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part III

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been conducting the 2019 Utility Fee Survey. This is an update to the original Utility Fee Survey in 2012 and subsequent fee surveys in 2015 and 2017. The survey was designed to research what fees utilities charge, how much they charge for each fee, and to see what trends, if any, are occurring with fees.

This is the third, and final, of three consecutive Utility Information Pipelines reporting the results of the 2019 Utility Fee Survey. 135 utilities, representing 22 states, ranging in size from 89 to 539,000 active accounts participated in the survey.

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, 2015, and 2017 Utility Fee Surveys:

The first results 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 is the third and final survey results issue and recaps all remaining fees.

Returned check fees

All 135 participating utilities charge a returned check fee ranging 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, only 83 (or 61.5%) of the responding utilities charge the maximum fee allowed by their state. 24 utilities (representing 17.8%) charge less than the maximum allowed and 28 (or 20.7%) 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, 68 of the 135 utilities (representing 50.4%) responding to the survey charge such an application or administrative fee. This is up from 47.9% in 2017, but down from 51.9% in 2015 and 52.3% in 2012. These application fees range from $5.00 to $250.00 as shown below:

Transfer fees

This year, for the second time, the Utility Fee Survey asked how much utilities charge as a transfer fee for transferring service from one account to another. 62 of the 135 utilities (representing 45.9%) charge a transfer fee ranging from $5.00 to $100.00. This is up from 44.1% in 2017. Transfer fees charged by the responding utilities are shown in this graph:

Meter reread fees

28 of the 135 utilities (or 23.0%) charge a meter reread fee if the customer requests their meter be reread. This is down slightly from 23.7% in 2017 and 23.6% in 2015. 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 $50.00, as this graph shows:

Meter tampering fees

101 of the 135 utilities (or 73.3%) charge a meter tampering fee. This is down from 77.1% in 2017 and 73.6% in 2015 but up from 60.2% in 2012. Seven utilities charge the actual cost of repairs or cost plus an administrative fee. One additional utility recovers their costs through the judicial system. Six utilities have an escalating fee that increases with each meter tampering offense. The remaining 87 utilities charge a flat fee ranging from $25.00 to $1000.00 as shown below:

Of the six 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 135 utilities responding to the survey, 122 of them (or 90.4%) accept credit cards. This is an increase from 89.0% in 2017, 81.1% in 2015, and 62.5% in 2012. Clearly, credit card acceptance has become standard practice for most utilities. Of the 122 that do accept credit cards, 85 (or 69.7%) of these charge a convenience fee on at least one method of credit card payments as shown below:

This is the second year the survey asked if the convenience fee is charged by the utility or by a third party. Of the 85 utilities that charge a convenience fee, 69 (or 81.2%) are charged by a third party as shown below. This is up from 69.4% in 2017.

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 or calibration fee

At least 15 utilities charge a fee if the customer requests that their meter be tested or calibrated. The survey didn’t specifically ask about meter test fees however, most only charge the fee if the test results validate that the meter is registering correctly.

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.

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 few slots left for the special offer I’m offering to the first five Utility Information Pipeline subscribers 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 919-673-4050 or e-mailing me at gsanders@edmundsgovtech.com. Remember, the special discount offer is only available to the first five people who respond!

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

© 2019 Gary Sanders

2019 Utility Fee Survey Results – Part II

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been conducting the 2019 Utility Fee Survey. This is an update to the original Utility Fee Survey in 2012 and subsequent fee surveys in 2015 and 2017. The survey was designed to research what fees utilities charge, how much they charge for each fee, and to see what trends, if any, are occurring with fees.

This is the second of three consecutive Utility Information Pipelines reporting the results of the 2019 Utility Fee Survey. 135 utilities, representing 22 states, ranging in size from 89 to 539,000 active accounts participated in the survey.

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, 2015, and 2017 Utility Fee Surveys:

The last issue summarized the demographics of the survey respondents as well as water and sewer tap and impact fees. Today’s issue deals with delinquent fees and policies. The next issue will be the third and final survey results issue and will recap all remaining fees.

Late fees

Of the 135 participating utilities, 133 charge a late fee. As shown by this graph, charging a late fee as a percentage of the bill is the most popular method (clicking on the any of the graphics will open a larger image in a new window):

Compared to the 2017 Utility Fee Survey, utilities charging a percentage is down (52.6% vs. 59.3%), while those charging a flat amount is up slightly (27.8% vs. 26.1%). The largest increase is in utilities charging something other than a percentage or flat amount (up from 13.0% to 19.5%).

Utilities that assess the late fee as a percentage charge from 1% to 25%, with 10% again being by far the most popular, as this graph depicts:

Late fees range from $5.00 to $50.00 for utilities that charge a flat amount. This graph illustrates the late fee flat amounts:

Thirteen of the utilities (up from eight in 2017, a 62.5% increase) charge a hybrid late fee – a combination of a percentage with a minimum amount. Here is a graph showing what they charge:

Seven utilities charge a base amount plus a percentage as shown below:

While not technically a fee, this year’s survey again asked how, other than the utility bill, each utility notifies customers that a late fee or penalty has been applied. Here are the responses to that question (the total of all responses is greater than the number of participating utilities because some utilities use multiple methods of contact):

Cut-off fees

Seventeen of the 135 utilities do not cut off for non-payment. All of the 118 that do cut off for non-payment charge a cut-off or reconnect fee as a flat amount. Three of the responding utilities charge an escalating cut-off fee whereby the more times a customer is on the cut-off list, the higher the fee becomes. In those cases, the amount shown in the graph is for first offenders. Additionally, three of the utilities charge a separate disconnect fee and reconnect fee. In those cases, the graph represents the combined total of both fees. Finally, three additional utilities charge a cut-off fee per service. In those cases, the graph assumes all services are being disconnected.

Cut-off or reconnect fees charged by the 118 utilities range from $15.00 to $550.00 as shown below:

Of the 118 utilities that cut off for non-payment, 76 of them (representing 64.4%) assess the cut-off fee as soon as the cut-off list leaves the office. Surprisingly, the percentage of utilities charging the cut-off fee immediately is down 9.5% from the 2017 Utility Fee Survey.

Cut-off fee terminology

As utilities adopt the best practice of charging the cut-off fee as soon as the cut-off list leaves the office, many are finding that terms such as “cut-off fee”, “disconnect fee” or “reconnect fee” are becoming outdated. For that reason, the survey asked what each utility calls its cut-off fee. The results are displayed in the following chart:

For the number of responses, including the 26 terms included in the “other” category, please click here.

Again this year, Reconnect Fee is still the most popular term, but Non-Payment Fee has replaced Cut-Off Fee as the second most popular term, as many utilities adopt terms that do not refer to cut-off or reconnection. Calling your cut-off fee Non-Payment Fee, Delinquent Fee, Service Fee, or any of the other terms not implying cut-off or reconnection helps to avoid the inevitable arguments with customers who must pay the fee but have not been cut off.

As with late fees, the survey also asked how, other than the utility bill, customers are notified that they are about to be cut-off for non-payment. The responses are shown below (again, the total of all responses is greater than the number of participating utilities because some utilities use multiple methods of contact):

This year’s survey also asked how utilities notify customers after they have been disconnected for non-payment. The responses are shown below (again, a few of the participating utilities employ multiple methods of contact):

After hours reconnect fees

Of the 118 utilities that cut off for non-payment, 61 of them (representing 51.7%) will reconnect after hours and charge a fee for this service. This is down from 42.6% of responding utilities in the 2017 Utility Fee Survey. 43 of the 61 utilities (or 70.5%) will reconnect anytime after regular office hours. The remaining 18 utilities will only reconnect during selected time periods as shown below:

After hours reconnect fee amounts range from $15.00 to $300.00 as shown by the following graph:

Same day reconnect fees

A new question in this year’s survey asked how many utilities charge a fee for same-day reconnection for non-payment. Five utilities charge a fee for this service, ranging from $10.00 to $35.00, as shown below:

Next issue

Part III – October 29, 2019

The final survey results issue will showcase any remaining fees, including application, returned check, meter reread, meter tampering and convenience fees.

A special offer

I’m offering a special offer to the first five Utility Information Pipeline subscribers 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 919-673-4050 or e-mailing me at gsanders@edmundsgovtech.com. Remember, the special discount offer is only available to the first five people who respond!

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

© 2019 Gary Sanders