Transforming Utility Customer Service: Logistics of Fee-Free Cards

Part II in a series. Part I ran in the Oct. 25 edition of the Electric Light & Power Executive Digest.

Many utilities are anxious to provide their customers with the highly-valued service of fee-free credit and debit card acceptance. While utilities accept credit cards today, they do so predominately by charging a convenience fee. But utilities are seeing rising customer irritation with convenience fees. As such, many are exploring with their regulators, customers and vendor partners how they might offer this service.

This series of articles explores the world of fee-free credit and debit card acceptance. The first article reviewed the business case. This article builds on the core logistics element of selecting a partner to provide the payment processing, by exploring the customer experience, system integration, and marketing aspects.

Customer Experience

Payment is the most prevalent touchpoint utilities have with their customers, with billing following a close second. That is because some customers may make several payments associated with a single bill. Payment is also an experience where consumers have developed expectations based on other service provider interactions. As a utility considers offering fee-free, thinking through the entire customer experience from the customers’ lens is important. 

Journey mapping is a great tool to use to chart the payment experience from a customer’s perspective. Journey mapping is a technique that combines data analytics, customer research, and employee engagement to identify current process pain points and new service offerings to create an experience that pleases customers. 

Considerations specific to credit and debit card acceptance in the customer experience are around whether there are “Ëœlimitations’ to using fee-free.  Some companies offer fee-free credit and debit payment, but only if the customer is enrolled in auto payment or electronic billing or both.  Additionally, utilities need to think about how customers may want to leverage fee-free credit and debit card payments for recurring payments, or staging multiple payments on a bill. Defining the customer experience first via journey mapping is vital to inform system integration and marketing aspects of credit and debit card offering.

System Integration

From a systems perspective, it is important to develop a thorough conversion plan that provides for ample integration and user acceptance testing. The actual complexity of the conversion is influenced by limitations as defined in the customer experience mapping, payment settlement process and self-service user interface.  

It is important that companies planning to offer fee-free develop a solid understanding of the system integration work involved, as well as the timeline to ensure that promises made to regulators can be met.  This timeline needs to be owned by both the utility and the vendor supporting the fee-free offering.  The timeline should include ample time for system and user acceptance testing.

Marketing and Communications

For success in offering fee-free credit card use, it is important to develop and implement a solid communications and marketing plan for customers as well as internal stakeholders.  This plan will be informed by the customer experience defined in journey mapping and the planned adoption rate the utility expects. 

In talking to utilities offering fee-free, the adoption rate has been difficult to predict and hence presents challenges in accurately budgeting to support the offering. As such, many are opting for a lower-key communication approach leveraging messaging on the web and communications via customer service representatives. 

The communication and marketing plan will also be informed by various restrictions or limitations planned by the utility. If the plans are to offer fee-free only to certain customers, such as those on auto-pay, then the communications plan may be more targeted to specific customers who may have interest in this service offering. 

Ensuring that internal stakeholders are also informed about the offering and ready to support it is also critical. Obviously, a communication and education plan to customer service representatives is a must. Field personnel will also need to be informed of the new service offering, particularly those involved in field credit work.

Increasingly, utilities are gaining regulatory support to offer fee-free credit and debit card payments. With this approval, they are moving to the important logistical phase of providing the service.  Starting with a plan for the customer experience will inform system integration, marketing and communications efforts. 

Since this is a payment offering, rigorous user and system testing is a must and needs to be considered in developing the timeline for the service launch. Once journey mapping, system integration and communications are in place, utilities are well-positioned to successfully offer this highly-valued offering to customers. 

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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