Transforming Utility Customer Service: Fee Free Credit and Debit Cards

Utility payment strategy is a hot topic in the industry and rightfully so.  Consumers are migrating rapidly to new payment channels and preferences, such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

Utilities are responding to this trend by updating their websites to support a variety of digital payment channels, and opening new channels such as mobile and text-to-pay.  But even with all of this advancement in payment offerings, utilities still have not addressed the most significant payment thorn in the side of customers. Utilities across the board–whether investor owned, municipal or co-operative–for the most part do not support payment via credit or debit cards for free.

Now, utilities are quick to point out that they do in fact accept credit and debit cards. But most charge a convenience fee for the use of this payment method. The reason for the convenience fee is that credit and debit cards are a more expensive payment method than traditional check or electronic payment. Opening up this option places great stress on the operating and maintenance budgets, hence it is a cost that needs to be built into the cost of service revenue requirements. This final piece requires regulatory approval.

Customers are not satisfied, though, with the acceptance of a credit or debit card that requires a convenience fee.  And utility customers are not hesitant to share their frustration with this process.  In the 2016 J.D. Power Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, customers noted the following:

“Allow to pay via their website using a credit card. Just about every other business in the free world does.”

“I’d like to be able to pay my bill via credit card online without setting up an auto pay or paying a fee. This is the only company I still write a check to, so annoying.”

“Not charge a 3rd party surcharge to pay bill any other way other than check or in person at main headquarters. So archaic and unfair!”

There is good news in regards to credit and debit card payments.  A growing number of utilities have built the business case and successfully secured regulatory approval and, importantly, included the offering in the cost of service. Based on conversations with utility executives at the 2017 CS Week Conference, many utilities are in the process of securing approval for this valued customer offering in their own service territories.

This series explores fee-free credit and debit card processing.  Specifically, what is included in a successful business case to regulators?  If approval is secured, what are the logistics involved in offering this service to customers?  And, for those companies that have implemented fee-free credit cards, what has been their experience?

Business Case

 Fundamentally the business case is all about the customers.  Customers want payment options that are convenient and in the channel of their choice.  Customers also want security on their payments.  Credit and debit cards are payment methods that enable new channels like Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Logistics

Offering fee-free credit and debit card payments requires integration with existing utility customer service platforms.  Many utilities offering fee-free debit and credit card processing are doing so by partnering with a payment processing vendor to ensure a safe and secure payment transaction.  In addition to providing the actual transaction capability, it is also important to consider how to market and communicate the new payment options to customers.  

Case Studies

Fortunately, there are now over 30 utilities that are offering fee-free credit and debit card processing across 17 states and in Canada.  The fee-free offering is from a broad spectrum of utilities including electric; gas and water; investor owned; municipal; and cooperative. These organizations have experience that will be helpful for those considering or implementing this service.  Utilities offering this service are able to identify the benefits and complications associated with this offering.

Offering fee-free credit and debit card payments is fundamentally about serving our customers in the manner and channels in which they want to be served.  This series will further explore how utilities are successfully bringing fee-free debit and credit card payment processing to their customers with a regulatory structure that ensures the cost of this service is included in the overall cost of service from a rate perspective.   Sharing the insights, learnings and best practices will support our entire industry in moving forward with offering this important service to customers with a regulatory framework that supports this payment channel.

About the author: Penni McLean-Conner is chief customer officer at Eversource Energy, the largest energy delivery company in New England. She serves on several boards, including the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

 

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