If your utility is like most, you’ve probably had to deal with rumors that surface on social media or in general conversation among your customers. If you are employed by a utility that is part of a municipal or county government, you likely have even greater occasion to deal with rumors because your jurisdiction is responsible for more than just utilities.
Does your utility have a way of dealing proactively with rumors?
No organization wants false information about them circulating among the general public. So, when I recently saw a LinkedIn post (if you’re a frequent reader of my blog, are active on LinkedIn, and we’re not connected, please send me a connection request) highlighting how a municipality in Georgia deals with rumor control, I was intrigued.
Roswell’s Rumor Page
The City of Roswell, Georgia has a page on their website, entitled Roswell’s Rumor Page, specifically to “eliminate false information and misconceptions by providing our citizens with the facts about issues and concerns within our community.”
Much like popular fact-checking websites, Roswell’s Rumor Page labels each rumor as true or false with an icon and gives a brief explanation on the page. Clicking on each rumor opens another webpage with a fuller explanation.
Do you have a creative way of dealing with rumors?
If you’ve come up with a creative way of dealing with rumors, please leave a comment at the end of this post, so others can learn from your experience.
Verifying that your customer really is who he or she claims to be is the best way to prevent fraudulent applications. Most utilities do this by requiring the applicant to show photo ID and proof of residency (lease agreement or closing documents) for the address at which they are applying for service.
Why is this important?
If you base the amount of a security deposit on the applicant’s credit score, using a stolen ID could allow a potential bad debt customer to establish service with no deposit.
Additionally, if the applicant is a previous bad debt customer, using a stolen identity allows them to avoid detection of the bad debt when you perform a bad debt search.
Many businesses allow a utility bill in the customer’s name as proof of ID. If someone is able to fraudulently establish an account, they could easily use their bill from your utility to defraud other businesses.
How does applying online change this?
If you allow customers to apply online (as opposed to merely downloading an application form), how do you confirm they are who they claim to be? Sure, they can take a picture of their driver’s license with their smartphone and upload it to your website. But without visually verifying their identity against the driver’s license, how do you know it’s not stolen?
Some utilities will allow customers to apply online, but require them to visit the office in person within the first week of establishing service. By doing so, the utility has the opportunity to scan the customer’s driver’s license and attach it to their customer record.
How do you handle online applications?
How does your utility deal with online applications? Please take this quick poll.
Once you’ve taken the poll, you can see the results to see how other utilities responded. I’ll publish the results in the next issue.
Does your application process need reevaluating?
Does your application for service process still involve handing a new applicant a clipboard to complete a paper application? If so, or if there are other ways you need to become more efficient, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at email@example.com to learn how a business review could help you evaluate how your office can be more efficient.
Google has developed an online tool to determine if your website is mobile friendly. I encourage you to use it to test your website.
Why is it important to be mobile-friendly?
More Google searches now take place on mobile devices than desktop computers. This means your customers, and potential customers, are more likely to use a smartphone or tablet to search for your utility online than they are to use a computer.
You’ve gone to great lengths to be sure your website is informative, so why not insure it can be viewed equally as well from the devices your customers are most likely to use?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how a business review could assist with reviewing your policies and procedures.
Do you offer your customers choices in how they can pay their bill? According to the 2012 Fiserv Billing Household Survey, 76% of American consumers use more than one method to pay their bills each month.
The infographic below is from the survey and highlights several key trends. Clicking on the infographic will open a larger version from the Fiserv website.
Let’s examine some of the key points illustrated by the infographic.
Customers use multiple payment methods
As mentioned above, 76% of consumers use more than one method to pay monthly bills. This could be due to personal preference or, more likely, to the unavailability of being able to pay some bills online.
More surprisingly, 20% vary how they pay bills each month, based primarily on availability of funds and due dates.
Online payments outpace check payments
For the last 11 years, check payments have steadily declined while online payments have more than quadrupled. 50% of bills are now paid online, split equally between using online banking and paying at the biller’s website.
As this trend continues, you can expect to see more payments being made at your website (if you offer online bill pay) and through online banking. If you aren’t receiving online banking checks electronically, your cash flow will suffer as more and more customers migrate from writing checks to paying bills through online banking.
Want more visitors to your website?
The number one reason given by consumers for visiting a biller’s website is to pay a bill online. If you’re not offering online bill pay, you’re missing out on this website traffic.
When was the last time you reviewed your payment options?
If you have questions about your existing payment options or would like assistance in exploring additional payment methods, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Are your customers asking if they can receive their bill electronically rather than receiving a paper bill in the mail? Paperless billing (or e-billing) allows a utility to present its customers with bills in electronic from rather than mailing a traditional paper bill.
The most obvious reason to offer paperless billing is cost savings. The cost to mail a bill includes postage, the bill itself (postcard or full page), envelope for full page bills, any additional inserts (return envelope and bill stuffers), consumables (toner or printer ribbons) and labor to print and prepare bills for mailing.
If you outsource the printing of your bills, these costs are passed on to you from your outsource printer. If you print bills in-house, some of these costs are direct costs (postage, forms, consumables and envelopes). The rest are indirect costs (salary and benefits for the time involved in preparing bills to be mailed).
How much can we save?
For full page bills, the very best automation compatible presort discount is the 5-digit presort rate of $.35. This rate is only available if you mail your bills using CASS certification and all of your bills are mailed to a presorted five digit zip code. Postage rates increase for less specific delivery areas (3-digit zip prefix, AADC, etc). These rates compare to the full first class postage rate of $.45 if you don’t presort. For postcards, the 5-digit presort rate is $.229 and the full first class postage rate is $.32.
For purposes of illustration, let’s use $.50/bill for the total cost of mailing a full page bill. This includes postage, forms, supplies and labor. If you bill monthly, for every customer that elects to stop receiving a paper bill, you will save $6.00 per year!
For many of your customers, the convenience of being able to receive their bill electronically is key. I can attest to this from personal experience. As someone who travels frequently for work, I have been receiving as many bills as I can electronically for several years. I also pay all of my bills using my bank’s online banking bill pay option. This means I can pay all of my bills while I’m traveling.
Customer adoption rates for e-billing will vary from utility to utility depending on the demographic of your customer base. If your customers make use of online bill pay or pay using IVR, chances are they would also enjoy the convenience of receiving their bill electronically.
Bill presentment options
With e-billing, utilities either attach an image of the bill to an e-mail or send an e-mail letting the customer know their bill is available to be viewed online. Each option has advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of attaching the bill to an e-mail is the customer doesn’t have to login to a website to view their bill. The disadvantage is producing and attaching a PDF document to an e-mail and the lack of security in attaching a bill to an e-mail.
The advantage of viewing the bill online is requiring your customer to login, so the information is more secure. You can also post more than just the most recent bill online, giving your customers the added convenience of seeing previous month’s bills as well. While the customer is logged in to your website to view their bill, they should also be able to pay it without having to login to another site.
How do we get started?
The first step is to contact your software vendor to see if they offer a paperless billing solution. Once you have that in place, getting your customers to sign up is the next step.
The key to higher adoption rates is to target specific customer groups that would be most likely to take advantage of e-billing. This includes those customers who pay using their bank’s online banking bill pay option, and those who use your online bill pay or IVR payment options. These customers have demonstrated that they are not intimidated by technology and are most likely to embrace paperless billing.
Another way to higher adoption rates is to ask! Have your customer service staff ask every new customer applying for service if they would prefer to receive an e-bill, just like they ask if new customers want to sign up for bank drafts. If you don’t ask every new customer if they want to sign up for bank drafts, you should! It’s the easiest way to collect payments.
I am the Senior Consultant with Edmunds GovTech | Logics in Raleigh, North Carolina. I have over 35 years experience developing and implementing utility billing and financial software and consulting with utilities and municipalities. My bi-weekly email newsletter draws from my experience in working with over 200 utilities and local governments to offer insight into how utilities can improve operations and better serve their customers. If you have a comment or a suggestion for a future email, please contact me by calling 919-673-4050 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org