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The obvious weakness of either of these options is out-of-date information.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 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 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 should a loose coin policy entail?

After the last Utility Information Pipeline issue dealing with a customer paying her entire $493 water bill in pennies as a “peaceful protest”, where I advocated for having a loose coin policy, a few readers inquired as to what a loose coin policy should entail.

Loose coin policy

At the very least, any loose coin policy should require that coins exceeding the amount required for a coin roll of that denomination be rolled. Standard coin roll denominations are:

  • pennies – $0.50
  • nickels – $2.00
  • dimes – $5.00
  • quarters – $10.00
  • half dollars – $10.00

It is also advisable to require your customer to write their name and phone number on each roll of coins in case there is a discrepancy in the amount of coins in the wrapper.

Obviously, you can use some discretion in enforcing the policy. If a customer showed up with 52 pennies to pay the exact change portion of their bill, it doesn’t make sense to require them to roll 50 of the pennies.

Benefits of a policy

With a loose coin policy in place, your office would be able to refuse to accept a wagon load of coins from an irate customer, such as the protest in the above story, unless the customer first wrapped the loose coins. This would save considerable time in counting the coins when they are presented for payment.

Have you completed the Utility Staffing Survey?

Just a reminder, if you haven’t yet participated in the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey, please click here to complete the survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. The results will be published in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Please feel free to share this survey with your peers at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey and for sharing it with other utilities.

Are your policies up-to-date?

If you don’t have a policy regarding loose coins, or feel like other policies may not be up-to-date, 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 your utility.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Could your office avoid a protest like this?

Could your office avoid a protest such as the one in the news last week at the Deltona, Florida water department? A customer, upset by what she claims were extraordinarily high bills, chose to pay her $493 water bill in pennies as a “peaceful protest.”

Are you like most utilities?

If your utility is like most that responded to a short poll regarding accepting loose coins in a previous Utility Information Pipeline, you don’t have a policy in place to prevent a malicious protest like this one.

According to the article, it took the staff more than three hours to count the 49,300 pennies. That, most likely, doesn’t include the additional time required to roll the 986 rolls of pennies before they could be deposited at the bank.

What is your policy for loose coins?

Some utilities have policies requiring coins presented for payment to be rolled, if they exceed the number needed for a roll. Such a policy would have required the frustrated customer in the news story to have rolled all the pennies before presenting them for deposit. This would have saved the office staff the time involved in counting all 49,300 pennies and kept them from having to roll the coins before depositing them.

If you don’t have such a policy, I recommend you implement one before you have a customer decide to wage a “peaceful protest” of a high bill.

Complete the Utility Staffing Survey

Just a reminder, if you haven’t yet participated in the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey, please click here to complete the survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. The results will be published in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Please feel free to share this survey with your peers at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey and for sharing it with other utilities.

Are your policies up-to-date?

If you don’t have a policy regarding loose coins, or feel like other policies may not be up-to-date, 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 your utility.-

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Early observations from the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey

As you know, the last issue of the Utility Information Pipeline was an invitation to participate in the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey. In addition to asking questions about the number of staff in various positions and how your office handles labor intensive practices such as payment processing and bill printing, the survey also includes questions about what percentage of payments are received by various methods.

Early survey results

Of the responses to the survey received so far, 25% of the respondents who supplied answers to the percentage of payments received by payment method responded with 0% for bank drafts!

I’ve written before about how bank drafts are the easiest way to collect payments and even offered suggestions for how to get more customers to sign up for bank drafts, not once, but twice!

When I advocate for bank drafts, I’m talking about sending an ACH file from your billing system to the bank. I’m not referring to going to your bank’s website and changing the amount to be drafted for each customer each month and I’m definitely not talking about filling out paper drafts by hand!

When I started in this business in the early 1980’s, it wasn’t unusual for a utility clerk to have a drawer full of rubber banded stacks of preprinted bank drafts that looked much like blank checks. The clerk would have to date the form and fill in the amount to be deducted from the customer’s account. Believe it or not, I recently encountered a utility still doing bank drafts this way!

Why aren’t you accepting bank drafts?

Knowing how easy it is and what a time saver bank drafts are, I’m frankly surprised when I encounter a utility that doesn’t accept bank drafts.

If your billing software won’t allow you to process bank drafts, it’s past time to replace you software!

If your bank won’t accept an ACH file, it’s time to find a new bank!

If it’s your own reluctance holding you back because “that’s the way we’ve always done it“, trust me when I say once you’ve implemented bank drafts you’ll be glad you did it!

Complete the Utility Staffing Survey

If you haven’t yet completed the 2018 Utility Staffing Survey, please click here to complete the survey. This should take less than five minutes to complete. The results will be published in a future Utility Information Pipeline.

Please feel free to share this survey with your peers at other utilities.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey and for sharing it with other utilities.

2018 rates dashboard for North Carolina

I’ve written in the past about resources, including the Environmental Finance Center at UNC. The EFC has just released the North Carolina Water And Wastewater Rates Dashboard for 2018. This dashboard contains rates for 495 utilities in North Carolina.

Is your office offering 21st century payment options?

If you’re not currently offering bank drafts, or think your office is otherwise behind the times with the payment options you offer, 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 your utility.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Consumer Expectations & Experiences

I’ve written in past years about the Fiserv Billing Household Survey, which describes consumer trends in paying bills. You can read those articles from 2013, 2015, and 2016.

I’ve been checking periodically to see if Fiserv released a similar survey for 2017, but can’t locate one. However, I did find a research paper, Expectations & Experiences | Consumer Payments, from April, 2017. You can download the paper from this link. Downloading requires your name and contact information but, from experience, I can assure you they won’t spam you!

Highlights from the paper

Here are some highlights from the research paper I think utilities would do well to pay attention to:

  • 74% of online banking users use online bill pay (page 3)
  • In the 30 days prior to the survey, the number one reason consumers used online banking was to pay bills (page 4)
  • 79% of consumers are satisfied with online bill pay (page 6)
  • Convenience is the number one reason consumers use either their bank’s online banking bill pay service or online bill pay directly from billers (page 7)
  • 76% of consumers say real-time payment delivery is at least somewhat important (page 9)

What does this mean for your utility?

Clearly, the trend is towards paying bills online, whether that means using your online bill pay site or your customer using their bank’s bill pay service.

If you don’t already offer online bill pay, I recommend you move as quickly as possible to start offering it.

If you do offer online bill pay through a third party, and it’s not fully integrated into your billing system (i.e. you have to import payments the next day), I encourage you to investigate a fully integrated online bill pay solution.

The final takeaway is, if you are still receiving paper checks when your customer pays using their bank’s bill pay service, to consider using a payment consolidator to receive those checks electronically.

Are you offering all the latest payment options?

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re offering the most popular payment options, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to discuss how a business review could benefit your utility.

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© 2018 Gary Sanders

Should you accept echecks…?

So you’ve got your online bill pay system in place and now you’re faced with what payment methods to offer. This includes which credit cards to accept and, more importantly, whether or not to accept echecks.

What is an echeck?

Echeck payments provide your customers the opportunity to enter their bank routing and account numbers and submit a payment to be electronically transferred from their bank account. This process is essentially the same as a bank draft, except the customer initiates the process rather than your office sending an ACH file to the bank.

Advantages of echecks

First, let’s examine why you might want to accept echecks. For starters, transaction fees are generally lower for echecks than credit cards. This means, if your utility absorbs the cost of processing online payments without charging a convenience fee, it costs you less to process an echeck than a credit card payment. If you charge a third party convenience fee, your customer will pay less than if they were to pay using a credit card.

Another reason to consider accepting echecks is some customers have checking accounts but no debit card so, without the echeck option, they wouldn’t be able to pay online.

Disadvantages of echecks

As was posted last week on one of the listservs I follow, echecks are subject to being returned if the customer incorrectly enters the echeck information.

This is because, unlike credit cards, there is no validation of the routing or account numbers as your customer is entering the payment. Likewise, there is also no verification of funds availability.

What this means is, unfortunately, echeck transactions are subject to honest mistakes in entering the information or, in some cases, outright abuse. I have had utilities tell me they are certain they have had customers intentionally enter erroneous echeck payments just prior to cut-off day to avoid being disconnected. This can work to the customer’s advantage if your returned check fee is less than your cut-off or reconnect fee.

The only real solution is to not accept echeck transactions and encourage your customers to use a debit card to pay from their checking account.

A reminder for North Carolina utilities

If you work for a North Carolina water utility, you should have received an invitation from the Environmental Finance Center to participate in a Utility Management Survey conducted by the EFC and North Carolina League of Municipalities.

If you, or someone at your utility, didn’t receive this invitation, please email the EFC directly at efc@sog.unc.edu and they will provide you with the specific survey link for your utility.

Should you offer additional payment options?

Do you ever wonder if your office should offer additional payment options? 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 benefit your utility.

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

© 2017 Gary Sanders