Obsess over the Right Details to Earn Customer Trust

By Kelli Palm, Lead Product Manager

Most people pay their utility bills online. That’s about as convenient as it gets, to the point that we don’t think about our bills unless something goes wrong.

But for the unbanked and underbanked population — some 27 percent of US households — online bill pay often isn’t an option. In many cases, neither is paying by mailing a check. People in the 33.5 million US households who are un- and underbanked often pay their utility bills in cash, at a payment center.

For the last four years, I’ve been part of a team designing kiosk applications for utility companies to take cash payments (and card and check). I’ve learned an enormous amount from the work and from talking with our clients and their customers. One important lesson: most people using our kiosks have never used one to make this kind of essential payment before.

That has huge implications for what we have to achieve on the design front: essentially, our kiosks need to be intuitive and rewarding enough to use that they’ll earn people’s trust on their own merits, the first time they’re used.

To really earn the trust of our kiosks’ end users, we have to understand when and how they use these machines. What I’ve learned in the past four years is that you have to be a little obsessive to build something good enough to earn customer trust. But it’s essential to obsess over the right details. Here are the ones that have proven most important to our work.

Convenience Is Crucial

For a person who is un- or underbanked and paying in cash, or someone with a looming bill due date who doesn’t live or work near a payment center, the options to make a payment are limited.

Most utility payment centers are open only during office hours. That’s a problem for people who have to be at work during those hours.

Historically, utility companies solved the problem by offering an after-hours dropbox where customers could leave payments. These were not an ideal solution for several reasons:

  1. Limited tender types: A 24-hour dropbox is specifically for checks or a credit card number written on a bill stub. Cash is not allowed, although cash payments happen regularly.
  2. Posting delay. Money put in the dropbox after close doesn’t post until the next business day, which could take more than 24 hours to process. This could mean a customer pays on time but doesn’t get credit for it, which can trigger fines or service cutoff.
  3. Imprecise account tracking. Some of our clients told us their customers would put cash in a dropbox paper-clipped to a piece of paper with their last name on it — i.e., incomplete information. The utility company wasn’t able to process the payment until a customer called to ask why it hadn’t posted.

Designed right, kiosks can solve all three of these problems.

Through-wall kiosk models let customers make payments after business hours at a payment center. Utility companies can also make freestanding kiosks available at multiple locations across their service area. This makes it even more convenient for customers who don’t live or work near payment centers.

The technology behind kiosks means payments can post instantly, which prevents service cutoffs. It also means customers can’t make a payment without first connecting to their account, reducing human error and ensuring their payments go through correctly.

A person who knows they have to pay their water bill by the end of the day or risk having service disconnected is probably not having a great day. If they have the option to pay by a 24/7 kiosk, things get better. They can pay on their schedule and know they’ll be able to enjoy a hot shower in the morning.

The First Experience Matters

Another thing I observed in the field: people tend to be skeptical of new technology. That’s especially true of technologies that take your money. So it’s really important that customers have a positive first experience.

If you’re trying to pay your bill at a kiosk but you don’t know your account number because you didn’t bring your bill stub, you might turn around and get in line for a customer service rep. Never mind that there are alternate ways to look up your account on a payment kiosk. If that’s your first kiosk experience, you may never go back. That’s bad news for utility companies that invest in kiosk infrastructure.

That’s why it’s important to have greeters on hand to walk people through their first transaction. Greeters at payment centers can introduce new kiosk technology and help people have a positive first impression by troubleshooting issues or helping to set expectations. For instance, a greeter can help a customer look up their account using their service address or phone number, and remind them to bring a bill stub next billing cycle. Or if a kiosk doesn’t provide change, a greeter can educate customers so next time they bring the exact amount due. If the functionality exists, greeters can explain how a customer’s overpayment goes toward their next bill.

I discovered that it was important for me to show those greeters how to handle interactions of these types. We created training manuals for greeters and walked through interactions with them in person so they were knowledgeable and confident about using the kiosks.

We also worked with our clients on how to educate their customers about what works best with kiosks: money that’s not torn, in whole dollar amounts close to the amount they intend to pay. Once that message got out, customers knew what to expect and came prepared for their next kiosk payment.

Confidence Is Paramount

For kiosks to succeed, customers must feel confident about using one to interact with their utility provider — confident that they can easily find necessary information, that their account information is accurate, and that their payments post immediately. We can cultivate this confidence by building client applications that meet users’ needs.

A kiosk application that shows someone their full balance is helpful. It’s even more helpful to notify someone if their service is eligible for disconnection, what their minimum payment must be to avoid disconnection, and what the deadline is to satisfy their balance.

Providing the right details can make all the difference for customers who may be struggling to make a payment. It both empowers them to make a strategic decision and also assures them that their utility provider is taking proactive steps to provide uninterrupted service. This makes for a positive customer service experience during a time that could otherwise be overwhelming.

The Larger Context Matters (A Lot)

Keeping big-picture questions in mind is maybe the most important thing I’ve learned from working with our kiosk clients. For example:

  • Why are customers at the payment center in the first place? The best-case scenario is that they’re there to pay a bill, most likely in cash (cash payments make up about 65 percent of payment center transactions). The worst-case scenario is that they’re on the brink of having service disconnected. These customers need to make sure their payments post immediately.
  • What are they sacrificing to be at the payment center? Everybody juggles multiple priorities — working, spending time with family or friends, getting groceries, etc. When people are forced to spend time paying a bill, even a small glitch in the system can be highly frustrating.
  • How do employees feel about kiosks? Altering a business process in someone’s place of employment can be disconcerting. We work with payment center managers to educate their staff on what changes they can anticipate. For instance, cashiers can typically expect fewer rote person-to-person interactions and can refocus their time helping customers solve bigger challenges, like setting up a payment plan or reflecting a name change on their account. This helps ensure that customer service representatives became champions of new services, which makes for an overall better customer experience.
  • How will kiosks affect existing infrastructure? Social Security benefits pay out on the third day of each month, which coincides with most utility billing cycle due dates. This means there’s usually a high volume of customers at payment centers on those days, as well as on common paydays. At client locations with drive-up kiosks, we’ve actually seen traffic jams because lines of cars extend into the roads and even block intersections. Some of our clients have had to bring in traffic control help on high-volume days to address that problem. We had to understand that their investment went beyond the kiosks themselves, and help them plan for these occasions.

It’s Smart to Listen to the Experts

While my team and I were becoming experts on the kiosks themselves, we realized fast that we weren’t experts in everything kiosk-related. For example, to build a product that works for end users, we listened to the experts on the payment centers — i.e., those who work in or rely on payment centers regularly.

I also spend a lot of time on the road, visiting client sites so I can see customer interactions first hand. This lets me talk to customer service reps about the most common scenarios they encounter.

When we were in the process of revamping the look and feel of our kiosk interface, we worked with a team of Purdue University researchers to conduct a usability study with a diverse group of kiosk users. The research findings helped inform the redesign our kiosk technology to make it more user-friendly for a broader segment of the population, including those who are less tech-savvy, those who have color blindness, and those who may not read English easily. (Read our blog on building accessible, usable tech.)

One Size Does Not Fit All

While the underlying CityBase payment technology is the same from one kiosk model to another, the functionalities can vary depending on the features our clients choose to turn on or off.

For example, one common question our clients have when choosing a kiosk is whether it will dispense change. Offering change means clients have to reconcile more cash. It also means that the kiosk requires extra servicing, as different teams from servicing companies (like BRINKS) are responsible for extracting and reloading change.

Utility clients that want the ability to dispense change have to know how much to include, and in which denominations. To answer those questions, we analyzed data from our clients and made recommendations. Of all utility cash transactions, we found that 30 percent of customers request change. On average, they receive $6 back. Our kiosks provide change in one- and five-dollar denominations. To determine how much change is required for a day, we factor in the following: a kiosk’s bill threshold minimum (on average 125–150 bills), average number of transactions per day, and frequency of servicing the change-making device.

When we work with government clients like DMVs that collect payments outside a fixed customer account, they have to offer change. Their kiosks function more like a cashier: there’s no option for customers to apply overpayments to a next visit, because customers don’t visit on a regular basis.

That means DMV kiosks have to be capable of providing change for every cash transaction. What’s more, the average change amount was different than at our utility clients, so we had to examine a fresh batch of data in order to make recommendations for how to stock their kiosks.

Remember: We’ve Got One Chance to Win New Fans

I think about and work with our kiosks every day. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, in part because I can appreciate how far we’ve come.

But for a first-time user, a greatly improved user experience doesn’t matter if it’s still not convenient, efficient, and simple. Kiosk customers are busy and rightfully wary about where their money goes. They may be on a tight deadline to get a payment in — or to get home for dinner. If the kiosk doesn’t work immediately, they’re likely to turn to another option.

As important as it is to design technology that works intuitively for end users, this should be the baseline standard. We’re a team that creates payment technology for utility services that people need, so it’s our responsibility to make sure the technology is actually helping make people’s lives easier. That means helping customers feel confident about using kiosks to make important payments, and it means supporting utility companies to provide excellent customer service. Those of us who work on design have to keep this big-picture perspective as we develop our products.

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