By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer
Less than a year after launching its e-billing program, Whitby Hydro Energy Services has about 8 percent of its customers receiving bills online. Many utilities have yet to reach that penetration level, even after three years or more of offering e-bill options.
What made e-billing take off for this small electric utility near Toronto, Canada? Managers gave the program a push. That is, they chose an e-billing strategy that pushes bills out to customers instead of requiring customers to go online and download the documents.
Whitby Hydro promotes the program aggressively, too. In fact, e-billing is the utility’s default alternative for bill presentment. Customers are automatically on e-billing unless they specifically opt out of the program.
Cost savings was a primary motivator when Whitby Hydro managers decided to implement an e-billing program. “With paper bills, typically you have the envelope, the bill, the return envelope, stuffers and stamps,” says Paul Elliott, Whitby Hydro’s vice president of customer services. “With e-billing, all that stuff goes away, which reduces costs.” In fact, utility managers estimated that paperless billing could shave 80 cents off the cost of each bill, which was $1.10 when the utility first implemented the program.
Customer choice is another reason Whitby Hydro went to e-billing. Elliott wanted to give his customers access to bills in a different format. Some 80 percent of customers in the utility’s service territory have access to the Internet, which makes e-billing an alternative most can easily use.
But, to offer the choice economically, the utility’s staff had to get at least 3 percent of customers into the e-billing program during its first year of operation. “Because we’re a small utility — around 40,000 customers — the cost of implementing an e-billing system outweighed the savings” unless that 3 percent threshold was met, Elliott says.
While researching e-billing systems, he discovered that “pull” systems — those requiring customers to log onto a site and pull down their own bill — were claiming 3 percent penetration over a three-year period. “Push” systems were claiming the same penetration rate — 3 percent — but in just a year.
Plugging it in
Elliott reports that the new e-billing program required only minor system changes to work with the utility’s legacy customer information system. “Our CIS didn’t have a spot in it to record e-mail addresses,” he says. The vendor quickly added one.
In addition, the vendor had to add functionality to keep e-billing customers separate from others when bill-printing deadlines rolled around. Whitby Hydro’s CIS produces an electronic file that then goes to a printing company for bill printing and mailing. Consequently, programmers added a turn-off switch in this application to prevent e-billing customers from getting print and electronic bills simultaneously.
Concurrent with the development process, Elliott had his customer service representatives gearing up to begin e-billing with as many customers enrolled as possible. “Prior to the launch, reps tried to capture e-mail addresses whenever they were in contact with customers,” Elliott notes.
The effort, which took around 18 weeks, left Elliott and his team with e-mail addresses on some 15 percent of all utility customers. “What we did then was send out a trial e-bill informing customers that this is how we’d be sending out bills in the future,” he continues. “If people wanted to opt out and continue getting the paper bill, they had that option.”
That initial e-mailing produced impressive results. Whitby Hydro launched its e-billing program with 3 percent of all customers enrolled from day one.
At Elliott’s insistence, customer service reps continued to promote the program while fielding regular customer calls. In addition, all new customers were informed that e-billing was the default billing method, and if people wanted paper bills, they needed to specifically request them. These efforts enabled the utility to approach its one-year anniversary of e-billing with more than 8 percent of customers in the program.
Very few customers complained about the switch from paper to e-billing, Elliott reports. “The number of people who saw the advantages was bigger,” he says. “An e-bill is just like the paper bill when you print it off your computer.”
Elliott plans to continue selling his program to customers via a direct-mail campaign and other methods this year. His target: an additional 10 percent of customers added in 2007.
His biggest challenge: getting customer service reps to sell the program. “The hardest thing about this is changing the culture within the organization,” he says. “I’m constantly monitoring calls to make sure reps really do try to sell the program.”
Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.