e-billing the right way

Paul Grey, Peace Software

Few utility websites deliver more than basic e-billing and consequently fail to realize the full potential of Internet self service to reduce customer care costs and improve customer service and loyalty. This is because many mistakenly approach e-billing as merely an online form of a paper process, an electronic view of the paper bill.

All too often utility websites replicate the printed bill, with all its well-known deficiencies, when instead they should start with a clean slate and design an e-billing facility not tied to traditional paper billing “Ëœsingle sheet’ thinking but one that exploits the power of the online experience, capitalizes on online usability principles and delivers the right information, at the right level of detail, for customers to interact with the utility in an optimum manner.

breaking with paper

The limitations of utility paper bills are well-known. Billing managers have long wrestled with ways to make the printed bill all things to all people. Designing the ideal utility paper bill is no easy task, some would say impossible, given the contradictory objectives a paper bill sets out to achieve.

On the one hand, bill designers seek clarity, and the ultimate in clarity is a bill with just the essential information: the amount to pay, the date it’s due, and how to pay it. This reduces customer confusion and leads to fewer customers contacting the call center for bill clarification.

On the other hand, bill designers seek to include on the bill all the details a customer may want to see should they want to understand their bill calculation, such as meter readings, the various usage factors applied, the rates and taxes, and historical comparisons. Packing all the information that a customer might need onto the printed bill can result in fewer calls to the call center for bill calculation explanations.

Thus the bill designers wrestle with objectives at odds with each other: to keep the bill simple and clear, and to provide full detail. While utilities around the world have refined their bill formats to meet customer needs as best they can over the course of many years, inevitably neither of the contradictory objectives can be fully achieved within the limitations of a paper bill. E-billing, without the limitations of the paper bill format, can help utilities achieve both these bill presentation objectives, and more besides.

Implementing e-billing based on an electronic version of the existing paper bill format might seem an obvious step to take considering it presents a consistent and familiar bill format to customers accustomed to seeing bills on paper. Certainly there are some customers who prefer to see the bill online as it appeared in their mailbox.

But, a static electronic version of a paper bill still brings to the Internet world all the failings of the paper billing world it’s derived from. For example, it cannot show the customer’s transactions since the bill date, such as interim payments or adjustments; show the consolidation of multiple invoices for multi-site customers; show the latest amount owed on an account; or, show other non-bill customer relevant information, such as service orders in progress.

An electronic view of the paper bill is better than nothing and utilities offering this basic form of e-billing outshine those utilities that don’t offer e-billing options at all. But, one cannot overlook the shortcomings of replicating a paper process and the real value of e-billing lies in usability engineered websites that break from the paper billing way of thinking and allow easy and streamlined Internet self service for customers who are increasingly expecting the slickness and usability so well exemplified by online pioneers such as Amazon.com and ebay. This is the standard that utility Internet self service should aspire to and be measured against.

usability engineering

Given that typically 90 percent of a utility’s customer interactions are billing-payment transactions, the e-billing process should be absolutely streamlined for the customer. An e-billing process that requires 10 screens and 20 mouse-clicks, and doesn’t show timely information such as interim transactions, will not be considered convenient to use by customers, and is more likely to create annoyance than to encourage e-billing adoption.

Usability is not intrinsic to software, and it takes a committed team within a development environment to implement usability engineering principles. A usability-engineered e-billing website presents concise information in logical sequence for viewing and paying the bill-the most pertinent information first. It caters to both new and experienced users with hyperlinks and cascading menus to drill down for additional information if required, without that detail getting in the way of the customers who are simply trying to pay their bill.

Moving customers to online billing can result in real dollar savings for utilities, and research firm Chartwell projects more than two-thirds of utilities in North America will offer some form of e-billing by 2007. The potential benefits are evident in the UK where British Gas offers an annual discount of up to £5 per product for customers to switch to e-billing. To date this initiative has transferred around 500,000 customers. Industry estimates place the cost of printing and mailing paper bills at approximately £1 per bill. Assuming monthly bills per customer, British Gas is saving as much as £7 per customer totaling £3.5 million, and furthermore delivering millions of pounds in savings to customers.

To capture the full potential of e-billing to reduce customer care costs and improve customer service in the North American utility industry will require more evolved thinking about customer e-billing needs. North American utilities must break with paper bill tradition and design online best practice websites in the same league as the Amazons if they are to reap the full benefits of e-billing’s potential.

Grey is chief market strategist at Peace Software (www.peace.com), a developer of utility billing and customer management software.

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