Utility customers want self-service options; you can easily provide them
Back in 2018, 51% of consumers worldwide paid bills and invoices online1. And during this same time frame, the Harvard Business Review noted this interesting fact: 81% of consumers across all industries tried to handle issues themselves before contacting a customer service agent.2
Then came the pandemic, and with it a surge in digital payments. People previously not comfortable with handling financial transactions online were forced to come to terms with digital channels. And they did, discovering the convenience of self-service.
Today post-pandemic, two-thirds of adults worldwide opt to make or receive digital payments online.3 This is consistent with different studies that find between 65% and 67% of people prefer self-service, versus dealing with a company representative.
Customer self-service is here to stay. Traditionally utility companies and municipalities have paid little attention to customer experience. That clearly needs to change. It’s the utility operators who embrace digital self-service channels that will reap the benefits.
The need to meet customer expectations
In deregulated regions where customers can easily switch to a competitor, the experience offered is especially critical. The life of any business depends on customer satisfaction. Thanks to online giants such as Amazon, customer expectations have changed. We expect that same level of service across every online experience, including from our utility providers. To build and maintain customer loyalty, you must become customer-centric and offer services when, where, and how they want them. The last thing you want is to find yourself blasted on social media for ignoring customer demands.
All of this requires you to think about a self-service strategy.
Online customer portals – good ones, anyway – allow customers to manage their account 24/7, and view and pay their bill when it’s convenient for them. How easy or difficult this is to navigate, and the functionality offered, comprise part of the customer experience. Customer engagement depends on what you’re willing to offer them.
How common are customer portals in the utilities industry?
More common than you might think, but customer portals in the utilities sector typically underperform when compared to other industries, according to a study by J.D. Power.4 This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that customer experience has traditionally failed to be a priority for utility providers.
For example, few portals allow customer interaction or offer a variety of payment methods. It’s essentially a place for customers to view their bill. They can’t update any personal information or request services. Let alone set up autopayments with a credit card. This hardly inspires customer engagement.
What’s in it for utility operators?
Now, for utility operators in an environment where customers don’t have the option of selecting a provider, you may think customer self-service isn’t necessary. But you’d be mistaken. Retaining and attracting customers aside, there are two common – and costly – issues for utility companies and municipalities.
Call volume and foot traffic
Problem: Traditionally, when customers have questions about their utility bill, want to request a service, or give a change of name or address, they call, write, email, or even walk into your office to do so. This demands the attention of your customer service staff, and in this day and age where we’re used to immediate responses from our online shopping experiences, wait times are frustrating for customers. It’s also stressful on staff that have multiple matters to attend to every day. On top of this is the fact that customer service is one of your biggest overheads.
Solution: A customer portal can enable customers to do all the above, from changing a personal detail to requesting a service, freeing up your staff. This presents a tantalising opportunity. Because customers can do these things themselves, the need for staff dedicated to customer service is reduced, along with the associated operational costs.
Comparing costs of self-service with live service
Quite simply, a customer portal is the most reliable and cost-effective means of meeting customer demands. In 2017, it was demonstrated that self-service cost pennies. Compare that with service interaction with a staff member, and the average cost rose to $7 for a B2C company ($8 today) and more than $13 for a B2B company.2
Problem: Late payments are commonplace in the industry, putting a strain on your ability to address daily operating expenses. Staff must spend time attempting to collect those payments. Even timely checks have to clear at the bank, slowing down your cash flow.
Solution: A customer portal allows customers to engage with their account when it’s convenient for them. More engagement means they’re far more likely to pay on time. The payment process is faster, too, which speeds up your cash flow. Even better, if you allow customers to set up autopayments, you have a more predictable cash flow. And providing multiple payment options gives your customers the ability to use their preferred payment type, helping your customers manage their cash flow as well.
Beginning your digital journey
A customer portal operates on the cloud, which is accessed through a web browser. With the right system, silos are broken down, giving you full visibility into every area of your operations. Through digitalization, businesses and municipalities can automate processes, realise significant efficiencies, stop revenue leakage, lower operating costs, and provide a better customer experience.
To learn more about the cloud, read Utility billing: cloud vs. on-premise software.
A customer portal is made possible by a cloud-based system. Some online portals are “add-ons” and require a separate software purchase from the utility billing engine. However, with an end-to-end, integrated solution such as AMCS Utility Billing, the customer portal is baked into the offering. Our solution is designed specifically for the utility industry, automating both the back-end and customer-facing aspects of the billing process. Accurate meter readings flow into the billing system to the specifications of customers’ contracts. Invoices are generated electronically and email notifications are sent to customers, letting them know their statement is ready.
Customers then log onto their account via your branded customer portal at their convenience and pay their balance, anytime of day or night. And they can use a variety of payment methods to do so. We can even work with you to help reduce the costs associated with electronic payment methods, reducing those pesky convenience fees that customers dislike.
Of course, some of your customers will still want paper bills. In those instances, meter readings are sent directly to your preferred print house for mailing.
In a matter of days, you can be up and running with AMCS Utility Billing solution, which includes your own branded customer portal. Contact us to get started, or simply to ask questions. We’ll guide you through your digital transformation and help you improve your customer satisfaction through a better customer experience.
1 PwC, Global Consumer Insights Survey 2019, It’s time for a consumer-centric metric: introducing a ‘return on experience’
2 Harvard Business Review, Kick-ass customer service, January – February 2017
3 The World Bank, COVID-19 Drives Global Surge in use of Digital Payments, June 29, 2022
4 Business Wire, Utilities Struggle to Find Right Digital Self-Service Formula, J.D. Power Finds, February 26, 2020
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