How can I reduce my office workload?

We’ve recently examined ways to reduce walk-in payments in your office. If you’ve tried all the things suggested in that article, but your office is still busier than you’d like it to be, here are a couple other suggestions to decrease the workload on your office staff.

Are you still manually entering mail payments?

In most utility offices, mail payments represent the largest volume of payments received. If you are still keying in each mail payment, it might be a good idea to look into a remittance processing system.

Remittance processing systems allow you to scan the bill stub and check, reducing the amount of time required to process mail payments. The system produces an output file which can be imported into your billing system, completely eliminating the need to key each payment. Remittance processing systems are also capable of producing a remote deposit capture file allowing you to deposit checks electronically.

One step above a remittance processing system is a lockbox service. With a lockbox, you don’t even have to open the mail – your bank handles the entire process from opening mail to depositing the checks. All you have to do is download and import a payment file from the bank each day.

Online banking checks

The biggest complaint I hear from utilities about processing payments is dealing with online banking checks. You know what I’m talking about – those checks that arrive a week or more after your customer went online to pay his bill and thought you would receive his payment the next day.

The problem, besides the length of time it takes to receive the checks, is that they arrive with no bill stub enclosed. If your customer doesn’t have the correct account number in their bank’s online banking software, you have to research each payment to find the account number.

There are solutions that allow you to receive online banking checks electronically. If online banking checks are an annoyance in your office, I recommend you look into one of these solutions.

Do you need help reducing your office workload?

If you are interested in reducing the time it take to process payments, or solving any other customer service issues, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at to learn how a business review could assist you with the process.

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© 2013 Gary Sanders

Are you considering offering budget billing?

Every now and then I get inquiries from utilities asking about starting a budget billing program. In a previous issue, I discussed why customer service is important, even to a utility with no competition.

Budget billing is a customer service convenience that provides a way for your customers to avoid seasonally high and low utility bills. They pay a more manageable amount that is easier to budget for, hence the name budget billing.

This issue will examine different budget billing methods and, hopefully, will help you decide if you should offer budget billing.

Budget billing methodologies

Budget billing programs generally fall into one of two categories – equal payment plans and levelized billing. Let’s start by looking at each and what differentiates them.

Equal payment plans

An equal payment plan establishes a flat amount that your customer pays for 11 months before “settling up” in the twelfth month.

The monthly budget amount is based on an established usage pattern, usually the previous year. In fact, many utilities will not allow a customer sign up for budget billing until they have at least 12 full months of usage history. A common practice is to factor in a nominal increase over the previous year’s historical average to allow for possible rate increases and changes in the customer’s usage patterns.

In the settlement month, the customer pays their actual charges plus or minus the accumulated budget billing balance. The budget billing balance is the net difference between the actual charges and the budget bill amounts for the previous 11 months. The budget billing balance can be positive or negative, depending on whether the customer’s usage has increased or decreased over the past year.

Levelized billing

As the name implies, levelized billing levels out the monthly bill amount, but it will still vary from month to month. Many levelized billing programs compute the monthly payment by averaging the previous 11 months plus the current month’s actual bill amounts.

Because levelized billing continuously averages the monthly budget amount, there is no need for an annual settlement month. Customers on levelized billing settle only when they discontinue budget billing.

Which is better – equal payment plans or levelized billing?

This is a trick question, because one really isn’t better than the other – it’s all about preferences.

From personal experience as a utility customer, my preference is an equal payment plan. For both electric and natural gas, my wife and I participate in equal payment plans and we like knowing exactly how much our utility bill will be each month.

Should you offer a budget billing program?

My recommendation is, if your utility provides an energy service (electricity or natural gas) then, yes, offering budget billing would be a convenience for your customers and I encourage you to do so.

However, if you are a water and sewer utility with no energy services, I don’t recommend offering budget billing. Even with summer irrigation, water bills typically don’t fluctuate enough from month to month to justify the overhead of administering a budget billing program.

Are you considering implementing a budget billing program? Please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at to talk about how I can help you get started.

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© 2013 Gary Sanders

Why is customer service important?

In the last issue, I wrote about a utility’s innovative customer service policy of extending $25 courtesy credits to customers who received poor service.

That issue closed with the question “we’re a monopoly – why does customer service matter?” So, let’s examine some of those reasons.

It’s the right thing to do

Even if they can’t take their business elsewhere, your customers deserve to be treated with respect and receive good customer service. Granted, some customers have attitudes that make it difficult to want to help them, but good customer service representatives find a way to remain poised and explain the situation calmly.

It reflects positively on your organization

Excellent customer service reflects positively on your entire organization, from front line employees all the way to upper management. Providing poor customer service is truly a case of one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch.

It’s been my experience that employees who have a cavalier attitude about customer service generally approach the rest of their work in the same fashion. Do you really want a cashier who doesn’t care if they make change correctly or a billing clerk who isn’t concerned with a customer’s bill being correct?

You want your customers to speak well about your utility

Sooner or later, you will request an rate increase. For most utilities, this requires a public hearing, either before your board, or if you are a regulated utility, before your state’s utility commission.

The last thing you want is to have is your customers showing up to protest a rate increase by complaining about how they were treated by your staff.

How good is your customer service?

If you are interested in an objective, unbiased look at your utility’s customer service, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at to learn how a business review could assist you with the process.

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© 2013 Gary Sanders