Are you offering paperless billing…?

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.

Cost savings

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!

Customer convenience

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.

If you have questions about paperless billing options, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

© 2012 Gary Sanders

Do you charge a meter reread fee?

I was recently involved in a training session with a group of customers, and one person complained about the number of rereads requested by their customers. She asked if any of the others in attendance charge a reread fee. Not surprisingly, none of them do. I say not surprisingly because the results of the Utility Fee Survey indicated only 18% of utilities do charge a reread fee.

Why don’t more utilities charge a reread fee?

Every utility I’m aware of that charges a reread fee does so only if the reread determines the initial reading was correct. If the customer’s concern that the reading was wrong is confirmed, no fee is assessed.

Unless your meter readers are extremely careless, in most cases the reread will verify the accuracy of the original reading. Your customer probably knows this when requesting a reread, but is likely frustrated over a high bill and requesting a reread is a way to vent that frustration.

Utilities that do charge a fee for rereading a meter report that many customers drop the request when they learn it may cost them. Performing a reread takes time for your office staff to process the initial request and communicate the results to the customer and for your field personnel to drive to the customer’s premise and reread the meter.

Why waste the valuable time of your staff with such nuisance requests when most of them are only going to confirm the original reading?

Teach your customers to read their own meters

Better yet, why not teach your customers to read their own meters? A number of utilities have great tutorials on their websites with step-by-step instructions for how to read a meter.

Lancaster County Water and Sewer District’s website has a great example of how to read a water meter. It also goes on to explain how they read meters using their drive-by AMR system.

The Duke Power website has a excellent example of how to read an electric meter.

These are both good examples of how your website can help your utility be more customer friendly.

If your customers are able to read their own meters, they won’t needlessly call your office to complain about readings that are valid.

Is your fee schedule up-to-date?

As with all fees, I am a strong proponent of insuring the fee you assess adequately covers the cost of providing the service. Keep in mind that fees, unlike rates, are charged only to those customers using the service. The fee you charge for performing a service, such as rereading a meter or disconnecting a customer for non-payment, should fully recover the cost of providing that service. If it doesn’t, all of your ratepayers, including low income families and senior citizens on fixed incomes, end up subsidizing those customers requiring the service.

If you haven’t reviewed your fees recently to insure you are adequately recovering your costs, I encourage you to do so. If you would like my assistance conducting a fee study, please give me a call at 919-232-2320 or e-mail me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

© 2012 Gary Sanders

What is your utility’s “corporate culture”…?

Three issues ago, I wrote about presenting a more customer friendly utility bill. This led a reader to ask “You advocate no-nonsense, tough policies with customers and yet, you write about being ‘customer friendly.’ How do you reconcile those two positions?”

We often read about “corporate culture” in the business world. I believe that utilities can effectively fashion an organizational culture that includes sound (some would say “tough”) business practices and policies while still being customer friendly.

Adopt sound business practices and policies

Most utilities, whether government agencies, non-profit entities or for-profit enterprises, operate as monopolies. This means your customers can’t take their business elsewhere and you have an obligation to provide a service at the lowest possible rates.

Maintaining the lowest possible rates requires operating your utility as efficiently as possible while protecting against losses. Losses for a utility can include theft of service or embezzlement, but most often are seen in bad debt accounts that must be written off.

Minimizing written-off accounts can be best accomplished by implementing policies and procedures that ensure:

I don’t believe enforcing fair and effective policies and procedures is at odds with being customer friendly if you have communicated these business practices to your customers. Failing to clearly inform customers of your policies and procedures is bad business and borders on deception.

Another imperative to being customer friendly is treating your customers equitably and applying policies fairly to all customers. This includes not granting special favors to influential or politically connected customers or friends and family members of utility employees.

Effectively publicize your policies and procedures

The key to informing your customers of your policies and procedures is to use all possible means to do so.  This includes:

It is possible to be “customer friendly” and operate an efficient utility

What is your utility’s organizational culture? Do you treat your customers fairly and hold them all to the same standards? Do you take advantage of every means possible to communicate your policies to your customers?

If you do all the things listed above, I believe it is absolutely possible to have an organizational culture that allows you to be both customer friendly and still operate a utility that adheres to sound business practices.

How does your utility measure up?

Is your utility is operating as efficiently as possible? Are you are as customer friendly as you could be?

If the answer to either of these questions is “no” (or if you’re honestly not sure of the answer), please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or e-mailing me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to see how I can assist you.

© 2012 Gary Sanders

Do you have a formal customer service policy?

Does your utility have a formal customer service policy? If you do, how recently have you reviewed it? Not just read through it, but reviewed it with an eye for revisions that reflect updated policies and procedures?

A formal customer service policy outlines the rights and responsibilities of both your utility and your customers. It describes what is expected of your customers and what actions you will take if they don’t comply. It should also define what your customer’s remedies are if they are billed incorrectly or treated unfairly.

If you don’t have a formal, published customer service policy, you have no way of insuring that all customers are treated fairly. Your customers, in turn, have no way of knowing what to expect from your utility.

Let’s look at a few key elements of an effective customer service policy…

Application for service requirements

When applying for service, do you require new customers to present photo identification or a lease agreement? If so, this should be stated in your customer service policy.

Will you activate service for a new customer the same day if the application is made before a certain time? Or will the customer have to wait until the next day to be turned on? Is there a fee for same day service?

Answers to these questions regarding initiating service should be listed clearly in your customer service policy.

Security deposit policies

Likewise, security deposit policies should be clearly defined. This is especially important if you don’t require the same deposit amount from every customer. For example, if you offer variable deposits based on a customer’s credit rating this should be clearly defined in your policy.

Policies regarding refunding deposits should also be included. Do you refund deposits after two years of good payment history? Or do you hold all deposits until the account is closed? Either way, your customers should be able to find this information in your policy.

Fee schedule

Similarly, your fee schedule should be clearly defined in your customer service policy. Customers should have no doubt how much you will charge if they bounce a check or are cut off for non-payment.

If you revise your fee schedule regularly, your customer service policy should be updated at the same time to reflect the revised fees.

Payment options

While it isn’t necessarily important to list all the different ways customers can pay their bills, many customer service policies include these. What is important, however, is to describe any expectations of your customers if they choose a particular payment option.

For example, if, after a certain number of returned checks in a specified period of time, you will no longer accept checks from a customer, this should be clearly noted in your policy.

Likewise, if you charge a convenience fee for certain types of credit card payments or require good payment history to sign up for bank drafts, these should also be included.

Delinquency and cut-off policies

One of the most important topics to be addressed in a customer service policy is your delinquency and cut-off policy.

How many days from the date of the bill does your customer have to pay before a late payment penalty is applied? How many days after that do you disconnect for non-payment? Will they receive a second notice? How much is the reconnect fee if an account is cut off for non-payment? Is this fee assessed to all accounts or only to accounts that are cut off? Will you make payment arrangements to allow customers to continue to receive service while paying off large bills?

The answers to all these questions should be clearly answered in your customer service policy.

Adjustment policies

If you offer leak adjustments for water leaks, the terms of such adjustments should be stated in your customer service policy. Likewise, if you offer summer sewer adjustments, these should also be addressed.

What if a customer is underbilled due to an error on your part? How far back will bill them and over how many months do they have to pay the difference. On the other hand, if a customer is overbilled, what will you do to correct the overbilling?

Again, the answer to all these questions should be addressed in your customer service policy.

Make your customer service policy available

In an effort to be customer friendly, I encourage you to make your customer service policy available to all customers, especially new customers.

Provide a copy to all new customers as part of a new customer packet. If it is a lengthy document, consider publishing a pamphlet with a synopsis of the key elements and give this to new customers.

And, of course, post it on your website, preferably as a downloadable link so your customers can print the full document if they so desire.

Do you have a formal customer service policy?

Does your utility have a formal customer service policy? Is it up-to-date? Please take a minute to respond to this quick survey on my Facebook page.

Is it time to review your customer service policy?

Is it time to review your customer service policy (or to develop one if you don’t have one)?

If so, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or e-mailing me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com to see how I can assist you.

© 2012 Gary Sanders

Is your office listed in Google Places…?

Do you have a listing in Google Places? If you don’t or if you don’t know what Google Places is, keep reading…

Customers look for you online

I haven’t opened a phone book in years and, apparently, I’m not alone! According to Google, “97% of consumers search for local businesses online.”

When your customers Google your utility, can they find you? If you have an up-to-date listing in Google Places, they can. Even if you don’t have a website!

An example of one utility’s Google Places listing

Mallory Valley Utility District (MVUD) in Franklin, Tennessee has a listing in Google Places. If you search for “Mallory Valley Utility District”, Google returns the following screen:

Google Search Screen

The first entry in the left column is MVUD’s website. Underneath, is their Facebook page. You did read Utility Information Pipeline #35 and now have a Facebook page, don’t you…?

To the right of the website links is a map with a push pin locating the MVUD office with their hours below the map. Clicking on the push pin opens a larger map in Google Maps and clicking on that push pin opens Mallory Valley Utility District’s Google Place listing as shown in this screen:

Mallory Valley Utility District Google Places Listing

As you can see, the Google Place listing shows the office address, phone number and logo and provides a link for driving directions to the office.

Why create a Google Places listing?

Jenny Clarke, Office Manager at Mallory Valley Utility District says, “I created the Google Places listing because more and more people use Google to find telephone numbers and addresses these days than they use the phone book, so it made sense to us to create a Google Places account. Customers can easily view our location now through Google.”

Jenny goes on to say, “Plus, we had a problem… Google was listing our address and phone number incorrectly. It was pulling a phone number and address to one of our pumping stations. With the Google Places account, I was able to correct the error and that has been very helpful.”

It’s easy to create your Google Places listing

To create your listing, go to www.google.com/places and click the “Get started” button. You will be prompted to enter your office phone number. If Google already recognizes your phone number, it will offer you the opportunity to edit the existing information and add additional details.

If your phone number isn’t recognized, you will be prompted to enter your organization’s name, address, phone number, e-mail address and website. You may also enter a description and a category for your listing, your office hours, methods of payment you accept and up to 10 images. These images can include your logo, as MVUD’s listing does, or photos of your office.

Finally, Google will mail you a PIN within two weeks to verify your listing. Once you enter this PIN in Google Places, your listing will be active.

Even if you don’t have a website, Google Places can provide a web presence for your utility. Without your own website, your Google Places listing solves three of the eight common website mistakes to avoid that I wrote about in Utility Information Pipeline #34.

What has been your experience?

Do you already have a Google Places listing? If you do, how has it benefitted you?

Better yet, if reading this has inspired you to create one, I would love to hear about that, too. In either case, please click here to post your comments.

If you have questions about Google Places or creating your listing, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320 or e-mailing me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

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© 2012 Gary Sanders

Should your utility have a Facebook page…?

You’ve probably read about social networking and may even be asking yourself “is this relevant to my utility?” I’m convinced it is and will attempt to explain why…

Two of the most popular social networks are Facebook and Twitter. You’ve probably seen businesses encourage their customers to “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. In this issue, let’s take a look at how establishing a Facebook page can help promote your utility. Once your customers “like” your page, they will see your status updates in their Facebook news feed, just like posts from any of their Facebook friends.

If your utility promotes water conservation, what better way to communicate that message than on a Facebook page? For utilities located in an area that is dealing with drought, Facebook is an excellent way to inform your customers of changes in drought restriction stages. If your utility bills for municipal services such as trash or recycling, Facebook provides a great forum to publicize changes in collection days.

Maintaining a web presence

Previously, I’ve written about why I believe maintaining a web presence is important and about some common website mistakes to avoid. If your utility doesn’t have the resources to design and host a website, a Facebook page is a great way to create an internet presence, and it’s FREE!

If you are unsure where to start in creating a Facebook page, SmallWaterSupply.org has a standing offer to build one for you. If you’re unfamiliar with SmallWaterSupply.org, they provide a variety of free resources for small water and wastewater systems. If you haven’t visited their website yet, I encourage you to do so.

How one utility uses Facebook

Lancaster County Water and Sewer District (LCWSD) in Lancaster, South Carolina maintains a Facebook page in addition to their website. David Lee, the IT Director for LCWSD, says “Facebook is an excellent way to promote the ways your utility gives back to the community by showing your involvement in local charities such as United Way and Red Cross Blood Drives. Customers can see that you are “real” people rather than just a place to pay a utility bill”.

Facebook pages allow you to post photos, “likes” for your page and a map to your office, as well as interact with your customers. David Lee states “We use Facebook to post messages of water outages, location of outages, estimated time of completion and the actual completion times. I have had several great comments on how we are one of the only utilities that does this. Even if there are no outages, we post that twice a day as well – once in the morning and again in the afternoon.”

Interact with your customers

You can post status updates, as LCWSD does, poll your customers (as I did about cut-off policies on the Utility Information Pipeline Facebook page) and allow your customers to post comments and ask questions. Of course, you can disable this feature and not allow your customers to post, but I would discourage you from doing so. After all, Facebook is called “social media” and who wants to be social with someone who won’t allow you to ask a question or voice your opinion? You can always remove offensive posts from your page, but if your customers have legitimate questions about how your utility operates, why not provide a forum for them to ask?

Finally, if you’re a Facebook user, please take a minute to “like” the Utility Information Pipeline Facebook page.

If you have questions about establishing a Facebook page for your utility, please contact me by calling 919-232-2320or e-mailing me at gsanders@logicssolutions.com.

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© 2012 Gary Sanders