Improving the Billing Experience for Utility Customers
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- Sep 27, 2019 6:30 pm GMT
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For many residential customers, the monthly power bill – whether in paper or digital format – is a core part of their relationship with their electricity providers, and it may be the only routine touchpoint for some customers. At the same time, customers often have trouble understanding their bills and aren’t always aware of the various options for bill payment and on-bill financing.
Further complicating this scenario, millennials are bringing new expectations to their relationships with their electricity providers. They want instant, hyper-relevant and meaningful experiences à la Amazon, Netflix, Venmo and others. And many lower-income customers have disproportionate energy burdens and have difficulty paying their monthly bills.
In this environment, it seems clear that optimizing the monthly bill and related on-bill financing opportunities according to consumers’ needs and wants can have a significant, positive impact on overall customer satisfaction with electricity providers. Let’s look at three examples of organizations that are working to improve the billing experience for residential customers.
Consumer insights from Exceleron’s prepay customer data
Based in Dallas, Texas, software company Exceleron has been providing solutions to electric, gas and water utilities for 20 years now and first launched its prepay solution a decade ago. Having served many customers for many different utilities over this time, Exceleron has developed four key insights on customers’ expectations around billing, as Darren Raybourn, the company’s senior vice president of sales, shared during a recent webinar.
The first of these is that customers want transparency and want their providers to speak to them as clearly as possible in a context that makes sense for their day-to-day lives. Along these lines, showing customers their daily spend on electricity is a great starting point to driving engagement and energy-efficient behaviors, according to Raybourn. The second insight is that mobility is the dominant lifestyle today – not just a convenience – as 94 percent of Exceleron’s users access the platform on a mobile device. If electricity providers want to meet their customers’ day-to-day needs, a streamlined mobile experience is essential.
The third insight is that paying bills should be easy, stress-free and fast. When consumers view their bills on their mobile device, they want a streamlined way to quickly pay their bill, i.e. one-click payment, a cash payment location map or mobile wallet integration. The final insight from Exceleron is that many consumers have fallen behind on bills and need help from their electricity providers paying off past balances. According to Raybourn, 31 percent of Exceleron’s prepay users are participating in arrearage assistance, which is essentially an interest-free, on-bill loan that they can pay back at their own pace.
An on-bill tariff program to help customers make energy-efficient upgrades
Ouachita Electric Cooperative, an electric utility serving approximately 7,000 members in southern Arkansas, has taken this last insight to heart with its HELP PAYS® (Pay As You Save) on-bill tariff program. In 2016, Ouachita EMC converted its existing on-bill financing program into a PAYS on-bill tariff model, which essentially means that customers incur no debt for energy-efficient improvements and that the improvement stays with the property, allowing renters can more easily participate.
According to Mark Cayce, Ouachita EMC’s general manager and chief executive officer, the cooperative sees this program as an investment in its members’ properties and in the broader community at large. The program offers new insulation, weather-stripping and air-sealing; fixes duct leakages; and replaces old HVAC equipment with modern, efficient upgrades. The cooperative gets a return on its investment through reduced demand, especially peak demand, and the cooperative's members get an average monthly bill reduction of 20 percent.
The HELP PAYS program is open to anyone that pays a bill to Ouachita, and the process begins with a complete home energy assessment at no cost. The cooperative member then receives a report with the cost of the recommended improvement(s) and the annual energy cost savings associated with each one (i.e. insulation, duct sealing, air-sealing, lighting and HVAC upgrade). The member then selects the upgrades that they would like to receive, and the work is completed at no cost and paid back through the energy savings on each month’s bill.
In the last few years, Ouachita EMC has completed over 500 residential projects with zero defaults. Some consumers have seen monthly savings of over 40-50 percent, and each year, the average tends to stay close to 20 percent. Ouachita continues to improve the program and has added smart thermostats and LED lighting since the program’s inception and is now beginning to get involved in rooftop solar. Since the program has helped Ouachita EMC significantly reduce peak demand, while reducing customers’ bills, it has been a clear win-win, according to Cayce.
Helping lower-income customers pay their bills on time
While many consumers today have difficulty paying their monthly electric bill, this is especially true for lower-income Americans, who may live in less energy-efficient housing and have higher energy burdens. Georgia Watch is an Atlanta-based consumer advocacy organization that seeks to educate and empower consumers on matters that impact their economic security and quality of life, and lowering consumers’ energy costs is one of their primary areas of focus.
As Liz Coyle, Georgia Watch’s executive director, shared during a recent webinar, Georgia Watch works to reduce consumers’ energy costs by either connecting them with existing programs to cut their bills or by direct assistance in making their homes more energy-efficient. The organization conducts educational workshops and webinars with advice on becoming more energy-efficient and hosts a toll-free hotline for consumers to contact for advice, usually around a looming shut-off in the winter or summer.
Using the input that they get from consumers, Georgia Watch also brings the voice of the consumer to the matters before the Georgia Public Service Commission and has been able to influence many changes in this arena. For example, back in 2013, Georgia Watch asked Georgia Power to expand their prepay program to consumers throughout the state. While not all consumer advocates are supporters of prepay programs, Georgia Watch has found that Georgia Power's program helps consumers avoid a complete shut-off where they would then lose their security deposit, which is a major hole for lower-income consumers to climb out of. Georgia Watch also encourages consumers to take advantage of free energy audits and rebates and incentives for energy-saving measures.
Conclusion: An opportunity to boost customer satisfaction
Many consumers today need help understanding their bills, and providing contextualized billing information that makes sense in their day-to-day lives can be a boon to consumer understanding and engagement. At the same time, many lower- and moderate-income Americans need assistance managing and paying their bills, and there are great examples out there of ways that electricity providers can help them reduce their monthly costs and eliminate past-due balances, including prepay and on-bill tariff programs. Listening to consumers’ needs around the monthly bill is a great starting point for electricity providers to improve the customer experience and boost satisfaction.