Customer Service, Cybersecurity, Executive Insight

How utilities expanded customer payment options in a crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic advanced from a health crisis to a financial crisis, organizations across industries had to re-evaluate key aspects of their business models to maintain critical cash flow. From a health perspective, social distancing and shelter in place mandates prompted a necessary shift from face-to-face customer service interactions, including bill payments, to digital models. And from a financial lens, mounting unemployment rates left many Americans in the workforce without the means to pay recurring bills that were still outstanding.

Utilities were at the center of this unprecedented situation, and our phones began to light up with dozens of questions from many of our utilities clients. Repeatedly, we heard, “We need to make it easier for our customers to pay their bills. What can we do?”

Immediately, we helped some providers turn off online payment fees overnight, making it more convenient and less of a burden financially for customers to pay their bills. For others that had never accepted e-payments by credit card before, we built entirely new digital payment portals at the fastest rates I’ve seen in my 22-year career.

But waiving fees and enabling credit card payments stand at the starting line of a longer journey to digital transformation. To thrive in a post-COVID-19 world, utilities need to advance their digital payments strategy to keep pace with – and get ahead of – today’s pandemic-driven increase of consumer digital adoption. It’s a digital leap that necessitates simple, speedy and secure online experiences without losing the human touch. Here’s more on each.

Simple: Adapting to shifting preferences

In its simplest form, expanding customer payment options is all about meeting people at the point of preference. Growing interest in online and mobile channels, including electronic bill pay, were established conventions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, according to 2019 Fiserv Expectations & Experience consumer payments research, 66% of consumers have used online bill pay and 40% of consumers have used mobile bill pay, both up from the previous year.

While digital payments were already on the rise, the pandemic has certainly accelerated adoption as more customers realized that paying electronically was not only easy, it also meant they didn’t have to touch (or fuss with) paper bills. There are also valuable ways for utilities to engage digitally with customers beyond the point of transaction. For example, 73% of consumers said they would be interested in receiving electronic reminders when a bill is due via email alert or mobile notification.

For utilities, this signals an opportunity to meet consumer preferences by offering not only digital payments options but also proactive prompts, reminders and engagement strategies to help and support them.

Speedy: Putting a premium on fast delivery

When it comes to speed, digital beats paper every time. Utilities can harness this speed by giving customers the option of electronic bills, also known as eBills. Perhaps as importantly, this paperless option gives customers one less piece of traditional mail to touch – a substantial benefit when consumers are putting their paper mail in quarantine, potentially prolonging the payment of those bills.

Utilities can also offer customers another option for paperless billing – sending their bill directly to their mobile wallet. People have already been using their mobile wallets to pay for groceries, store boarding passes and access store discounts, so it’s a small leap for customers to receive their bills that way, too. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, we have seen a 4.2% adoption rate in consumers electing to receive their bill through a mobile wallet versus paper.  

Both eBills and billing via digital wallet offer improved payment velocity while providing customers with a simple, convenient way to receive and pay bills. They also reduce utilities’ printing and mailing costs – an especially valuable revenue enhancer for regulated monopolies operating within a standing rate case. 

Secure: Continuing to deliver with confidence

Throughout COVID-19, the threat of cyberattacks has continued to mount as criminals look to cash in on the unprecedented circumstances facing businesses and consumers. While utilities wisely focus on protecting the grid and their infrastructure, it’s also critical to heighten security measures in protection of payments systems and financial information.

Even as utilities bolster their cyber-defense measures in light of the pandemic, COVID-19 gave rise to increased phishing attempts. These fake but realistic-looking messages entice the recipient to click on a link for more information, resulting in data theft or the introduction of ransomware to a utility’s financial and data systems. In an office situation, an employee might notice something suspicious about a phishing message – an obvious typo, an unrecognizable URL or poorly written prose. Now, working from home while balancing other distractions in that at-home environment, that same employee may miss those giveaway cues.

To combat this, utilities should adjust data loss tools, like spam filters, for increased sensitivity to COVID-19 threats. Look out for common terms, related language and commonly misspelled versions of those key terms.  Combine that with employee education – don’t click on links from unknown senders, and be on the lookout for language that imparts a false sense of urgency.

Preparing for the future

In any crisis response, speed is a necessity in the short-term while standing up solutions that make sense in the long-term. While few could have foreseen the sweeping impact of the pandemic on personal and professional lives, now is the right time for utilities to review their bill payment channels to maximize customer engagement and satisfaction.

Consumers now expect to see and pay their bills when, where and how they want to. With a digital future in mind, utilities should look at their full scope of payment options and bolster the matrix where needed.

The bottom line: the more payment channels that utilities offer their customers, the more opportunities they’ll have to pay you, in ways that are easy and comfortable for them. That will keep cash flowing and operations funded – through the next crisis and beyond.