By Sara Faied
Digital payment platforms improve the efficiency of collections and related labor practices, but their greatest benefit may be enhancing utility-customer relations.
Water rates have increased 43% over the last decade across U.S. cities, signaling a growing financial burden in this sector. The data show that the surge in water prices currently outpaces other household1 utility services such as power and gas, at an average of 4.2% per year. Price increases do not bode well for utility companies that ostensibly feel the impact of increased late and unpaid water bills.
It’s not just water. All utility companies are mired in inefficiencies, reinforcing late and delinquent payments, reduced employee productivity, and a reliance on manual operations. For these providers, time is of the essence. According to Accenture,2 utilities have just 10 minutes of customers’ attention annually, meaning providers have about 60 seconds a month to achieve a top-quality experience.
The Road To Customer Success
The importance of strategic billing and payments ranks highest among significant touchpoints3 along the customer journey, proving that digital payments are no longer simply a welcome convenience but a foundational element toward maximizing sustainable value. Proprietary research finds that 43%4 of consumers prefer online payment as their method of choice. Yet water, electricity, and gas providers continue to lag behind other industries in this area. Growing competitive, regulatory, and stakeholder pressures all challenge utilities to prioritize customer experience and secure their trust.
While not quite on par with industries such as e-commerce or ride-sharing apps, utility companies have plenty of opportunities to improve customers’ engagement via digital channels. Customer-centricity is especially valuable during market volatility and inflation, and decreased physical touchpoints challenge sentiment toward utility companies and their processes.
Delivering digital payment options is not only a crowd pleaser among payers — a recent survey shows that 79%5 of customers prefer to make a payment through a digital channel, whether online (43%), on a mobile device (34%), or via text messaging (2%). For utilities, digital accelerates collections, reduces late and delinquent payments, and boosts customer satisfaction; but first, these organizations must strategically implement these offerings.
When the population served by the Bona Vista Water District of Utah6 grew at a higher and faster rate than the state’s average, the utility was challenged to keep up. The utility hired additional customer service staff to respond to increased payment-related visits and calls. Employees were stressed and overwhelmed, especially toward the end of the month when payments were due and a few weeks later when mid-month shutoffs were expected due to nonpayment. Increased numbers of phone calls and walk-ins limited insight into enrollment numbers, outdated user experience on both the front and back end, and an inability to scale using existing hosted electronic bill payment and presentment (EBPP) platforms (which frequently had technical problems) led to untenable frustration for both the utility’s customers and its employees.
The district explored various options and settled on a digital payment and customer engagement solution — InvoiceCloud — to transform and improve collection processes as well as efficiently troubleshoot customer issues.
The new solution came with a number of features to improve ease of use and self-service for customers and utility staff alike, including:
- Multichannel payment options, such as pay-by-text.
- Quick access to statements without needing to log in to an account.
- Cloud-hosted technology that reduces server issues and keeps the payment solution continuously updated.
- A robust reporting functionality for a detailed view of all payment details.
The new customer engagement and payment solution integrated directly within Bona Vista’s existing IT system, allowing the utility to keep pace with customer demand during the transition and scale as needed without additional integrations. In just six months, Bona Vista saw the following results:
- Increased e-payment adoption by 75%.
- Expanded paperless enrollment by 63%.
- Reduced payment-related calls by 20%, allowing employees to prioritize high-value projects, improving their productivity and satisfaction.
Where to start? Check out three best practices for utilities at the top of their digital game and encourage adoption numbers:
- Make it easy for people who have traditionally not used online payment methods to embrace the transition:
- Mirror details of the paper bill, clearly identifying due dates so customers can feel confident knowing they’re in the right place.
- Include notes in bill inserts with more information.
- Provide reminders to encourage on-time payments.
- Prioritize communication with payers, especially those who struggle to make payments:
- A personalized touch makes people feel comfortable and allows more human interaction.
- Provide a target date, whether that’s a potential payment date or to check in again.
- Invest in enhanced security:
- To reassure customers that their information is safe and to keep online payment adoption rates up, be sure to offer a secure payment platform.
- Ensure the solution is cloud-based and both PCI Level 1 and Nacha compliant.
Experience continues to pervade as a top priority: Gartner confirms that customer experience drives over 66%7 of customer loyalty — more than price and brand combined — and this is true for almost every industry. With a more engaging and innovative approach to billing and payments (and other processes), water providers can shift from simply a commodity provider to a significant contributor toward improving communities, a benefit that serves everyone.
About The Author
Sara Faied is VP of processing transformation at InvoiceCloud, an EngageSmart solution. With more than 15 years of payment experience, she has a proven record of implementing new technologies and developing new processes.