Is this really poor customer service…?

Recently, I was presenting my Improving Revenue Collections for Utilities presentation to the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water Fall Conference.

Part of my presentation deals with offering additional payment methods, such as bank drafts, online bill pay, and IVR payments. While discussing these, I stress how important it is to offer convenient ways for customers to pay without visiting the office.

Audience concern

About midway through my presentation, a gentleman on the back row raised his hand to voice an objection. This gentleman works in the industry, but not for a utility, and his concern was something to the effect of “it sounds like you are advocating for utilities to be less customer friendly by encouraging their customers not to come to the office to pay.”

My response

I explained that, quite the opposite, I firmly believe in – and advocate for – utilities providing outstanding customer service. I went on to explain that some customers, especially millennials, actually prefer not to interact in person.

By offering a fully integrated online bill pay system where customers can research their billing and usage history and make payments, your utility is actually providing an invaluable customer service. By doing so, and thereby reducing the number of calls or visits to your office, you actually free up staff time to more effectively deal with customers who have more serious issues.

By devoting enough time to adequately research and assist customers with excessively high bills or to set up a payment plan, your utility is able to offer even better customer service. If your staff time is consumed with walk-in customers merely wanting to make payments, they won’t have the time to devote to those customers who truly need the attention.

Do you ever wonder…?

Do you ever wonder if your office staff spends too much time dealing with walk-in customers? If so, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at to learn how a business review could benefit your utility.

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© 2017 Gary Sanders

Do you document customer interactions?

The last issue discussed reading inactive meters for vacant accounts and included a poll asking if your utility reads inactive meters.

Poll results

Ten utilities responded to the poll, and here are the results (clicking on the the graphic will open a larger image in a new window):

Do you read inactive meters

If you missed the poll, you can click here to take it.

While only ten utilities responded to the poll, I’m pleased to see that 70% of the respondents do read inactive meters. I’m especially glad to see the one utility that still reads on paper is reading inactive meters!

What really surprised me is the utility that reads using an automated meter reading system and doesn’t read inactive meters. Frankly, this baffles me. Unlike reading on paper or with handhelds, where the meter reader must take additional time to read inactive meters, reading with an AMR or AMI system takes no extra time. So why not read inactive meters?

Documenting customer interactions

Does your utility keep a record of all customer interactions? For example, if a customer calls to complain about a high bill or request additional time to pay their bill, do you log a comment for that?

Documenting each conversation with a customer can prove invaluable if the customer complains to management or your board.

Documenting each conversation with a customer can prove invaluable if the customer complains to management or your board. Customers tend to remember their version of a phone call and having an accurate record of what transpired during the call can easily resolve a “he said, she said” situation when the customer suffers from selective memory.

I encourage all of our customers to enter a comment for any conversation with a customer beyond the routine “how much is my bill and when is it due?” questions. Any good billing system allows you to enter comments for each customer. If yours doesn’t, it’s time to look for new software! If your billing software won’t allow you to enter comments for each customer, give me a call and let’s discuss how a business review could help determine what other shortcomings your software has.

Share your stories

Have you experienced a situation where having documented a customer conversation proved invaluable later? If so, please click here to take a moment share your story in the comments section of this post on my blog.

Are you using your software to your best advantage?

If you aren’t sure your utility is using your software to its best advantage, or if you realize it’s time for new software, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at to learn how a business review could help you understand what new software could do for you.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders

Is your online listing up to date?

Three years ago, I wrote about being sure your utility is listed in Google Places. You can read that article here.

Get Your Business Online

Google has introduced a new program called “Let’s Put Our Cities on the Map” to help facilitate getting small businesses online. As part of this project, they have created an online tool to see how your utility shows up in Google Search and Google Maps. You can access it at

This will prompt for the name of your utility and then will display one of two results pages, depending on how complete your information is.

You’re on the map

If your information is complete, you will see a screen similar to this:

GYBO Complete

Then, as you scroll down, it will show a preview of how your listing appears:

Logics GYBO Listing

Your business info is incomplete

On the other hand, if you information is incomplete, you will see a screen that looks something like this:

GYBO Incomplete

If your information is incomplete, all you have to do is click the “Complete your information” button. The tool will take you through the steps to update your listing.

Of the handful of utilities I checked while researching this article, the most common reason for an incomplete listing was not having their hours listed, followed by no picture (logo). According to Google, the number one thing people look for online is hours, so be sure yours are up to date!

Still time to complete the 2015 Utility Fee Survey

If you haven’t yet participated in the 2015 Utility Fee Survey and would like to, please click here to complete the survey. It should take less than five minutes to complete.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at or call me at 919-232-2320.

I’m looking for as much participation as possible in the survey, so please feel free to pass this on to your colleagues at other utilities.get

Thank you in advance for your participation in the Utility Fee Survey.

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© 2015 Gary Sanders

A milestone reached!

This is the 100th issue of the Utility Information Pipeline! When I started writing nearly four years ago, I had no idea how long this would run, but certainly the idea of 100 issues was unimaginable!

To commemorate this milestone, I had the idea of creating a word cloud of the most common words found in the first 99 issues. In the interest of full disclosure, the idea was mine, but credit for the artistic elements (font, color and shape) go to my wife, Gina.

First 100 Issues Word Cloud

The word cloud is a tear-drop (water droplet?) shape, pointing toward the future, anchored by the words utility, customer, customers and service. Since the tagline for this newsletter is “Insights into how utilities can improve operations and better serve their customers”, it only makes sense that these words should appear frequently.

Hopefully, some of what I’ve written has helped you be more forward thinking in your approach to customer service. After all, without customers, none of us would have a job!

My blog

My blog – serves as an archive of all previous issues. If you’re looking for an e-mail you deleted, or if you are a more recent subscriber, my blog is a great resource.

Blog posts appear in reverse chronological order, with the most recent post first. The sidebar includes a subscribe link (for your co-workers and associates who don’t already subscribe to this newsletter), search bar to search for content, options to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Scrolling down, you will find archives by month and posts by various categories. Clicking on any of these will display a short intro to the relevant posts in that month or category.

Thank you

Being Thanksgiving week, it’s only natural to pause and reflect on what we’re thankful for. I’m thankful for you, my readers, many of whom have been here since the very first issue. Thank you for taking the time to read what I have to say and also for the compliments, kudos and ideas I receive.

I also owe a huge “thank you” to my wife, Gina. As I mentioned above, she lent her artistic talents to the word cloud in this issue. More importantly, she serves as my editor for each issue, catching misspellings and punctuation errors or helping me find a better way to make my point. Thank you, darling!

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© 2014 Gary Sanders

5 ways to get more customers to pay the easy way!

If you’ve been reading the Utility Information Pipeline for any length of time, you know that bank drafts are the easiest way to collect payments.

The challenge is – how do you get more customers to pay by bank draft?

This issue takes a look at several strategies you can employ to get more customers to sign up for bank drafts.

1. It’s as simple as asking

There’s an old adage in sales that goes “if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” This is as true for signing customers up for bank drafts as it is for any sales situation. Sure, a few people will ask if you offer bank drafts, but you will get a lot more if you ask.

It’s been my experience that utilities with a significantly higher percentage of customers paying by bank draft ask every new customer if they would like to pay by bank draft.

2. Promote, promote, promote

Do you have signs prominently displayed in your collections and customer service areas that promote your bank draft program?

Do you list the various ways customers can pay, including bank drafts, on the back of your utility bill? Do you routinely include a bank draft sign-up form with your bill?

Does your website include instructions about how to sign up for bank drafts? Can your customers download the sign-up form?

All of these are simple ways to promote your bank draft program and encourage more participation.

3. Waive security deposits as an incentive

Admittedly, this is a bit unusual and I’ve only ever heard of one utility offering it. However, by not charging a security deposit to customers who sign up for bank drafts, this utility has an astounding 60% bank draft adoption rate!

Read about it here to see if this makes sense for your utility.

4. Remove first-time late fees as an incentive

How many calls have you taken from customers who have never been late before asking if you can remove the late fee?

As a gracious customer service gesture, why not offer to remove the late fee if they, in turn, agree to sign up for bank drafts? By doing so, they will never be charged another late fee and you have one more bank draft customer.

5. Offer rebates

Another option offered by some utilities is rebates for customers who sign up for bank drafts.

We recently did a presentation to a town that offers a $.50 monthly credit to bank draft customers as an enticement to continue on bank drafts.

Other utilities offer a larger, one-time rebate – often after a twelve month qualifying period – for customers who sign up and remain on bank drafts for the full year.

Are you looking for ways to improve payment processing?

Are you looking for ways your office could process payments more efficiently? If so, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at to learn how a business review could benefit your utility.

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© 2014 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 to learn more about how a business review could assist with reviewing your policies and procedures.

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© 2014 Gary Sanders