All Utility Bills in One Place: How Essential Utilities Are Adopting Smart City Technology
Imagine you’re facing a deadline to pay your utility bills by the end of the week, or risk penalty fees or service interruption. Now imagine you’re under-banked. You face some trying options: You could take time off work and forfeit your pay, driving from one payment center to another to pay a cashier during business hours. Or you could go to a check cashing store to pay after hours, facing perhaps an additional 3% on top of your water and electric bills.
Cash customers deserve better options. Utilities are leveraging bill pay kiosks to provide self-service, contactless payment options for their customers who pay in person due to preference or need. Some utilities are joining forces to provide their customers the option to satisfy all their bills on a single payment kiosk machine.
“These kiosks are making transactions easier, safer, and more efficient, with added flexibility to make payments when and how it’s most convenient,” said an assistant director for Mobile Area Water & Sewer System (MAWSS) in Alabama. Last year, MAWSS partnered with Alabama Power Company to make their payment application available on 11 Alabama Power kiosks, in addition to their own six MAWSS payment kiosks.
The benefits of a self service payment option
Pandemic aside, it’s never a great experience to wait in line or face a crowded payment center when you’re just making a simple, straightforward payment. A fast self-service option reduces foot traffic and lines. Customer service representatives can focus their time on customers with more complex asks when they’re not processing rote transactions.
“We used to have lines of people outside the lobby before we opened. Of course we don’t have that anymore,” said a customer operations lead at City Utilities of Springfield in Missouri, which has six utility bill payment kiosks located at their main office, including two kiosks that offer 24/7 service.
A self-service option can make a financial impact on your customers as well. Customers who enroll in payment plans or make partial payments throughout the month benefit from no-fee options like payment kiosks. Paying a little throughout the month can also help people avoid late fees against their bill.
“If you’re scheduled for disconnect today, and you make a payment on the kiosk, within a matter of minutes the disconnect will be canceled,” said City Utilities. “Some customers like that anonymity. They walk up to the outdoor kiosks, pay their bill, and go about their day. There’s no judgment if they pay bills multiple times a month. If they were forced to come in and pay a representative and they can’t make that full payment, it’s a little discouraging.”
When utilities share a bill pay kiosk with government payments
The pandemic expedited the digitization of public services, making it easier for all customers to request services and access real-time information about the status of a request or payment. Digital smart city technology also applies to in-person technology like payment kiosks, which run on secure, cloud-based software.
No information is stored on a payment kiosk, and transactions are processed instantly via a cellular modem. This technology is what enables multiple utilities and government departments to share kiosk hardware while maintaining independent payment workflows. Each payment workflow pulls information from that department’s underlying data system — like a parking ticket from a city finance department and a property tax payment from a county treasurer.
In the City of Chicago, for instance, residents can pay their water bills on payment kiosks, along with parking and traffic tickets, permits, taxes, ordinance violations, and library fees. Chicago has 70+ kiosk pay stations located citywide to provide convenient access to walk-in customers in their own neighborhoods, including some that provide 24/7 access. Chicago kiosk locations include City Hall, payment centers, libraries, police stations, community centers, and city department lobbies.
Letting customers pay in their own neighborhoods
When utilities invest in improving access and equity for customers, selecting kiosk machine locations is important. Utility providers with large service areas can improve customer service by having kiosks within close proximity of the majority of their customers.
Kiosks can be located inside or outside utility payment centers, public buildings like libraries and community centers, and at partnering businesses like convenience stores. For instance, DTE Energy in Detroit has introduced 43 new kiosk pay stations at local businesses like grocery and convenience stores across their service region.
The kiosks are dedicated for use by their utility customers and branded as the utility provider, so customers benefit from fast transactions without having to wait in line. Real-time account information and immediate payment confirmation improves ease of use and eliminates customer confusion, which they may otherwise face if they paid through a third-party like a Western Union.
Similarly, Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU) has a network of 13 kiosks, the majority located in local grocery stores for customer convenience. By providing payment services in safe, highly trafficked areas, TPU ensures their customers have a comfortable payment experience in places they already frequent.
“If they’re at the grocery store and see our payment kiosk there, they’re comfortable paying by either cash or a credit/debit card. They like getting the receipt; that tangible proof of payment matters to them,” said an assistant manager of customer services for TPU.
Customers who don’t have the option to pay online particularly benefit from solutions for utilities that provide a free way to pay without added convenience fees, especially when a payment kiosk is easily accessible at a location near them.
“We have some customers who are struggling financially,” said TPU. “They’re usually unbanked, or underbanked. They rely mainly on cash-economy work. Often, they pay bits at a time, not the full bill. They’ll pay when they can, whatever they can. Our Public Utility Board has expressed pleasure that our kiosks have helped us improve service in traditionally underserved areas.”