Customer service remains key component in successful EBPP

By Jill Marquardt, Orcom Solutions Inc.

Electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) can be a valuable customer service tool for a utility or energy service company (ESCO). However, as with any new product or service, an electricity provider needs to have good customer service practices already in place to launch and maintain a successful EBPP program.

Effective customer service establishes communications pathways and lays the groundwork for customer education, two essential ingredients to introducing a new service like EBPP. Millions of consumers are already used to purchasing items like books and airline tickets online. Yet far fewer consumers are in the practice of paying a monthly utility bill through the same venue-or are even aware that such a payment option exists.

In the utility industry, EBPP adoption rates have been estimated at only two to five percent. Industry experts suggest that one of the major challenges to EBPP adoption is a lack of consumer support behind it and that EBPP will be adopted by consumers only if they believe it is more secure, convenient, affordable and easy-to-use than writing a check and putting it in the mail.

Customers must have faith in EBPP

In short: customers need to trust the process-and trust the company that provides it. Good customer service is essential to developing this trust, particularly today when both trust and customer service are perceived as being universally lacking.

When electric services customers sign up for an EBPP program, they release their private financial and account information to a billing entity. Would anyone trust a company with that information if one of its representatives had treated him or her rudely in the past? Consumers also authorize this entity to execute financial transactions for you over the Internet. How comfortable would people feel doing this if a company regularly failed to respond to their complaints or inquiries, or habitually kept them on hold for 15 minutes at a time when calling its customer service hot line?

Customer service representatives (CSRs) are in the ideal position. Who better to notify utility account holders about a new service, like EBPP, and educate them on how it works than the one human being at a utility with whom they actually have a one-on-one conversation? In their day-to-day activities, CSRs have many opportunities to initiate this conversation-for example, while answering questions, while taking an order for a change in address, or after fulfilling a service order request. To give one example of the scope of contact that can be involved, CSRs for Orcom Solutions handle customer service calls, billing remittance, credit, collection and emergency inquiries for those clients who outsource call center operations. To ensure a high level of knowledge when communicating with customers, Orcom assigns each CSR exclusively to only one client and extensively trains CSRs on their respective clients’ operations, products and services.

CSRs also are in a position to play a key role in facilitating the next step: customer registration. Electricity providers can educate CSRs on EBPP registration, train them on enrollment processes and empower them to actually register new EBPP users. As with the marketing and promotion for an EBPP program, customer registration can be integrated seamlessly into a CSR’s daily workflow. Enrollment screens can be integrated into call center workstations. Additionally, when EBPP registration is conducted in the same friendly, knowledgeable manner as all CSR/account holder transactions, the sense of customer goodwill is further strengthened.

Retaining the customer

Once customers are signed up, the challenge is to keep them. Customer service plays just as important of a role in the retention stage. Customers who don’t receive the help or information they expect may drop out of the EBPP program. In states open to competition, truly dissatisfied customers may move to another provider altogether.

How can a utility’s customer service operations ensure strong customer retention? Some of the ways are common sense, like ensuring accuracy and clarity on billing statements. Whether printed on paper or posted in cyberspace, a utility bill, and the interactions surrounding it, is an important communication with a customer. A utility or ESCO also needs to provide detailed information on the EBPP program itself, through a media mix that could include its Web site, printed communications and a telephone hot line, to educate customers adequately on how EBPP works and address frequently asked questions. Errors and customer complaints need to be resolved quickly, thoroughly, effectively and in a friendly fashion. Though EBPP is an Internet-enabled medium, a utility should offer both telephone and online support to accommodate both the Web enthusiast and the customer who would prefer to address his or her questions with a “real person.”

From initial launch to ongoing maintenance, good customer service is an essential ingredient to a successful EBPP program. It’s just common sense: In order to persuade your customers to try something new, such as conduct their utility billing transactions through the Internet, you have to be on good terms with them. And the best way to establish these good terms is to treat your customers with the prompt, thorough and friendly service that you yourself would expect from your electricity provider.

Jill Marquardt is public relations manager for Orcom Solutions Inc., an application service provider of billing and customer care solutions, systems integration and outsourcing services. She may be contacted at 303-390-2430 or e-mail at jill_marquardt@orcom.com. Visit www.orcom.com for more information.

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