By Suzanne Haggerty, Research Manager –
Customers want to pay their utility bills. Utility companies want customers to pay their bills. Both sides want the process to be efficient and inexpensive.
It really shouldn’t be so complicated.
As an industry, we’re getting there. Professionals from around the U.S. and Canada gathered at Chartwell’s Billing and Payment Conference earlier this month to discuss the technological changes and updated strategies that are leading to better billing, payment and collections processes that promise to benefit both customers and utilities.
Some of the best takeaways came from utilities gathered at the “Future Trends” discussion roundtable, where attendees agreed on a list of features that the “customer of the future” is going to expect:
- Fee-free credit card payments
- SMS payments
- Easier online payments (i.e., the ability to pay through an online bill aggregation service such as Paytrust)
The good news? A lot of utilities are well on their way to satisfying some of these expectations, and discussed their strategies at the conference.
In 2016, Chartwell research found that approximately 11% of customers pay their utility bills with a credit card. Given the ubiquity of credit card use for everything from groceries to cell phone bills, customers aren’t happy when they have to cough up an extra fee to pay their power bill.
While eliminating credit card fees isn’t even on the table for most utilities, some have made headway. When Consumers Energy removed its credit card fee in 2016, use of credit cards spiked, and rose even higher when the company expanded its payment options in early 2017.
What also spiked? Customer satisfaction.
As noted, this isn’t an option for every company. But that fee is a point of contention every time a customer pays it, so at the very least companies should figure out their communications about the fee, and make it seem less punitive.
The biggest problem most utilities face is lowering their cost to service while increasing payment options (and associated satisfaction) for customers.
When Georgia Power wanted to give its customers more flexibility to make payments when and where they wanted, the company utilized authorized payment locations (APLs) at a variety of retail and financial locations. This reduced customer reliance on local payment offices and gave customers the option to pay their bills outside of regular office hours.
The company was able to close more than 100 local offices while offering customers 4,000 APL locations in the state of Georgia.
Georgia Power also began offering an online no-fee debit card payment option, which turned out to be the company’s fastest growing payment channel.
The conference wasn’t all about payment channels, however. Attendees heard about efforts from utilities such as Southern California Edison and Con Edison to grow their eBill adoption rates. Stacey Young of Ameren Illinois discussed community outreach techniques that not only demonstrate the company’s commitment to being a good corporate citizen, but also enable customers to access bill assistance programs and one-on-one assistance from onsite CSRs.
Attendees got 1.5 days of brainstorming as they glimpsed the future of billing and payment strategies and technologies, and Chartwell members will hear more about some of these innovative ideas and efforts over the next few months (at least a couple of them have shown up as Chartwell Best Practices Award entries).