Electronic Commerce and Billing-Is It Really Necessary?

Electronic Commerce and Billing-Is It Really Necessary?

You may have noticed that two of the last three issues of Utility Automation have contained articles dealing with electronic commerce and billing. This issue has an article on the subject as well. Some of you may already know all you want or need to know about the subject, and some of you may not care to know anything about it. However, I believe there are quite a few of you who are, or should be, interested.

It has become increasingly clear in the past few months that electronic commerce and billing is a hot topic with today`s utilities–or at least a hot topic with companies offering billing services to utilities. Lately, I have been inundated with press releases and article abstracts on the subject. If I were to include every article that has been submitted to me about electronic commerce and billing, there would be no room in the magazine for anything else.

If you read January`s article, “Internet Billing: Just a Click Away,” you know that there are several different avenues utilities can take to get into the electronic billing game. As the article points out, there are also many vendors that are willing to be a part of the team. From where I sit, selecting the right avenue and the appropriate players looks like a tough job. It also looks like a job that can not be avoided.

There are already some consumers who are paying many of their bills electronically. In the next few months, more are expected to begin doing the same. Electronic billing companies are popping up right and left. As consumers become more acclimated to using their home computers for shopping and banking, they are sure to see electronic bill payment as an added advantage. Since virtually every consumer household must pay monthly utility bills, the utility industry is certainly a target for billing companies offering consolidated electronic billing.

While these companies and the services they`re offering may be convenient to consumers, they may not be that convenient to utilities. In addition, instead of reducing utilities` billing costs, many have the potential to actually increase costs, since many utilities are not set up to accept some of these electronic payments. Thus, these payments must be processed without the remittance form. It is my understanding that these “exceptions” can cost up to six times more than a personal check (returned in the mail) to process.

You may say that the solution to this problem is easy–simply refuse to accept these transactions. However, that may not be a wise decision. Some utility customers are going to want the convenience of electronic billing and if your utility doesn`t offer that convenience, those customers are going to look for it somewhere else. These customers could be the first to switch service providers when given the opportunity.

I am certainly not suggesting that utilities hurriedly jump into electronic billing. There are many things to consider before making a decision. However, I do think that in order to successfully compete, at some point utilities must begin offering the service.

I also believe that if utilities sort through all their options and carefully select the billing system that is right for them, they will not only have satisfied customers, but they will also see great savings in processing costs.

Someone recently told me that every utility needs to decide on an electronic billing system that meets its needs and then begin implementing that system, before a system is imposed upon them by an outside party, such as a billing service. This sounds like good advice. n

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