The Technology that Lets Everyone Pay for Utilities the Way We Use Them

For the most part, people don’t use their utilities independently. You can’t take a hot shower, for example, without water, gas (to heat the water), and electricity (to keep the lights on). The same is true whether you’re preparing food, doing laundry, washing dishes, or carrying out any of a dozen other everyday tasks.

But to pay for utilities we deal with individual bills and payments with each utility provider.                     

For people who have the option of paying online, this isn’t much of a pain point—the effort required is minimal whether you’re paying one vendor or a dozen, and while the user experience (UX) of online bill pay may not be cutting-edge, it’s functional. But for people who pay in cash or otherwise don’t have the luxury of online bill pay, paying multiple utility companies every month can be burdensome.

This is especially true in rural areas, where payment centers for utility providers may be dozens of miles apart. A customer might have to drive for 20 minutes or more to reach the payment center. If they have to pay three bills, that could add up to an hour in the car to get to the three payment center locations.

That’s compounded for those who work nine-to-five schedules and might need to take time off work or miss a lunch break to get to payment centers when they’re open. Payment can be expensive when it comes to gas money or missed wages.

If there is an option for people to pay their bills in one spot, the only choice may be a check-cashing store, which doesn’t offer a very inspiring UX, for several reasons:

       • If you want to pay with cash, you’re charged a fee.

       • Cash payments typically take 48 to 72 hours to post to a customer’s account. This delay could mean interruption in service even after you’ve paid a bill.

       • Because check-cashing stores are middlemen, without access to customers’ full account, there’s no easy way to look up your account number if you leave a paper bill at home.

In other words, paying utility bills when you don’t have access to a bank account costs more in time and actual dollars and can be a much more frustrating experience.

Paying for Utilities Together Saves Time, Money, and Frustration

We’ve been thinking about this problem a lot as we’ve helped utility providers introduce payment kiosks to streamline the bill-pay process. As we saw it, there were three major major problems with the status quo of utility payment options:

       • Complexity: Many times, utilities customers require assistance to identify their account number. Many of our kiosk clients allow their users to find their account on a payment kiosk with other, more familiar data—like by searching their address or scanning their license. At a check-cashing store, they don’t have full access to a utility provider’s database, so search methods are limited. If you forget your account number, that might mean turning around and going home to get your bill.

       • Time: If you mail a check payment or use online bill pay, you can pay utility bills at any time of the day. We offered the same convenience for cash-paying customers by introducing 24-hour outdoor kiosks. When we did, kiosk adoption rates were often over 25% for after-hours, in-person payment options.

       • Location: A 24-hour kiosk with account lookup options is great, but if you can only pay one bill there and still have to travel to several other locations to pay the rest of your bills, it’s not that convenient.

To solve for all of these, we proposed a kiosk that would let customers pay multiple utility bills at once, and leverage data from multiple utility providers to make it easier for them to do so.

From the utility providers’ point of view, each provider maintains its own billing system, account structure, and search methods. From a customer’s viewpoint, they pay for utilities like electricity, water, and gas in one place, with the same intuitive UX and the comfort of knowing they’re securely interacting directly with their utility provider.

In practice, the single-kiosk setup benefits everyone involved:

       • Having an optimized, user-friendly interface for paying multiple utility bills means customers can complete more transactions more quickly and easily.

       • Connecting kiosk software to customer account data from multiple utility providers means customers look up and access multiple accounts in a variety of ways: by account number, address, or driver’s license. By connecting the cloud-based kiosk software directly to a utility’s database, it also means that payments post directly to a customer’s account—ensuring bills are paid faster and reducing service interruptions.

       • The speed of kiosk transactions (we got ours down to less than a minute on average) means lines stay short and customers are willing to use the kiosks. This is good news for providers, as kiosk payments cost less than processing call-in or mail-in payments.

       • Access to kiosks means customers can use less energy to pay utilities, whether they’re taking advantage of a walk-in urban kiosk or driving to just a single rural kiosk instead of a handful.

       • Utility providers can share a kiosk network and the associated costs while maintaining independent operations, control, direct deposit, and reconciliation.

Shared payment kiosks offer greater convenience and a better customer experience. This leads to more on-time payments with less hassle, which benefits customers as well as providers.

Serving a Diverse Population Better

We obsess over how customers respond to and interact with our kiosks. That’s how we determined that adding a 24-hour external kiosk and offering the option to receive change were necessary. It’s also what drove us to work with researchers from Purdue University to develop an intuitive, easy-to-use kiosk interface that improves the payment process for everyone, including people with vision impairments, low literacy levels, and limited English.

By continuing to evolve our technology, we’ve found ways to meet the needs of every customer who wants to pay a bill in person, directly to their utility provider. When we applied the same detail-focused obsession to the larger context—that is, to the lives of people using the kiosks—we found ways to make paying for utilities as easy as it is to use them.

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