marketing buzz: maximizing the utility bill as a customer communications vehicle

The utility bill. It arrives every month and is often opened in a state of anxiety (especially if you live in one of the nation’s hot summer spots). The newsletter and any other bill inserts are moved aside as the customer’s eyes scan for two important pieces of information. How much is it this month? And when is it due?

For many customers, this is as far as they go in reviewing their monthly billing information. If the amount due is unusually high, they might scan the bill inserts for tips on lowering their energy use. Or if they are anything like my mother, they will pull out the newsletter, smooth out the creases, read it word for word and dutifully file it for future reference.

I’m sure many utility communicators know that not all of their customers are like my mother, so they’ve overhauled their billing statements to enhance both the appearance and content of this compelling marketing and customer service tool.

One utility that has recently launched a redesigned customer statement is Arizona Public Service, an investor-owned utility serving nearly a million customers. APS’ goal in redesigning the statement was to make its bill easier to read and understand.

“The new design provides our customers with more information to help them better manage their energy use and costs,” said Tammy McLeod, APS general manager of customer service. Some of the new APS bill enhancements include:

“- A streamlined summary page that makes it easier for customers to locate the bottom line-the amount due and the due date;

“- More visible messages such as “Final Notice to Pay” or “Meter Access” alerts;

“- A bar graph that depicts the customer’s year-over-year average daily electricity use; and

“- A “Service Account” page that provides a breakout of specific charges in the monthly bill, including taxes and special regulatory assessments.

APS also uses the bill for safety and public service messages. “The attorney general’s office requested we run a bill message in May to help them with their identity theft prevention campaign,” said Maria Arellano, an APS spokesperson. She added that APS plans to print key messages once found only in the customer newsletter directly onto the bill to ensure more customers get important information.

more than a bill

“Ëœ”ËœThe customer bill is going through an evolution,” said Jake Johnson, general manager of DATAMATX, a full-service Atlanta-based company that provides printed and electronic billing solutions to more than 250 national corporate customers.

Part of that evolution is to design statements that communicate the company’s culture and brand. According to Johnson, a bill offers a low-cost way to support public relations efforts. For example, a rural electric cooperative could allow nonprofit groups and schools to post community service announcements on its electric bills selectively based on address and zip code. This would allow the cooperative to target messages to members’ households pertaining to school events in their respective neighborhoods.

Redesigned bills, combined with advanced CIS technologies, also enable utilities to make market offers to customers based on their past buying habits, demographic information and other factors.

“Energy services providers can succeed in shifting the focus from price to benefits by targeting high probability interest items and by providing tailored products to each customer based on research of his or her buying habits,” said Johnson. He added that utilities should develop offers to the top two demographic groups most likely to respond, allowing for stronger customer relationships to be developed.

redesigning tips

When redesigning your own statement, Johnson suggests following three guidelines:

1. Ensure your statement is easy to understand and that information is easy to find.

2. Send customers a bill that is accurate and delivered on time.

3. Create a billing statement that enforces your corporate image.

The utilities researched for this column also involved the customer in the redesign of the billing statement in order to get that input throughout the process.

While the monthly utility bill isn’t the most popular piece of mail delivered to your customers’ homes, it’s definitely one that gets opened and read. Smart utilities are making the most of it.

Meg Matt is founder and principal of The Matt Group, an integrated marketing communications firm specializing in the energy industry. Her areas of focus include brand strategy, customer communications, competitive assessments and marketing. She can be reached at 480-704-0897 or at meg@themattgroup.com.

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