How Utilities Can Be the Heroes of Their Communities
Utilities that own the customer experience end to end improve customer service and can anchor additional community services
For most Americans, there is no other public service they interact with more than their utility providers. Electric, water, and gas utilities are about as essential as you can get when we talk about essential services.
Utilities hold a unique position in the United States: they have regular interactions with most everyone in their communities, and they are often the most trusted and familiar organizations across demographics. Utility providers can leverage this dynamic to make life easier for their customers and to strengthen social services in their communities. Even better, they can do this all while being economically responsible and operationally efficient.
The problem with outsourcing the customer experience
For the last 20 years, there has been a trend among larger investor owned utilities to close in-person payment centers. Most have hired vendors to establish “pay stations,” local retail businesses equipped with applications that allow them to process payments on behalf of a utility.
There are many issues that negatively affect the overall performance for this payment model:
- Customers must pay a fee for their bill to be processed. These fees disproportionately impact cash-preferred customers, resulting in fees sometimes higher than 3% of their bill.
- Long lines are almost a daily occurrence, as payment processing is not a core business function of the retailer.
- Cash processing increases the cost to the retailer for depositing funds.
- It’s not easy for customers to pay, since customers must have their utility bill on hand, and know the exact balance.
- These payments don’t post automatically to a utility provider’s customer information system (CIS), risking late fees or service interruptions.
This also leads to more customer service calls for people calling about the status of their bill, since a customer can’t be confident that their payment posted to their utility account.
There is also high turnover of pay stations, as retailers become frustrated with the responsibility of having cash on hand and for inconveniencing their regular customers who are included in longer payment lines.
Owning the customer lifecycle end-to-end
Many utilities have introduced their own self-service payment kiosks to maintain a convenient payment channel for in-person customers, especially those paying in cash who don’t have the option to pay online. Many of these customers are under-banked and don’t have access to traditional banking services like credit or debit cards that would enable them to pay online. During the COVID-19 pandemic, even utilities that still operate payment centers are looking for ways to continue serving their in-person customers while eliminating person-to-person contact.
Utilities that offer kiosks are providing secure, self-service, 24/7 access for customers to pay in cash while eliminating person-to-person contact in a pandemic. Payments post in real time via cloud-based payment technology, providing up-to-the-minute information about a person’s account. Customers receive a receipt that provides assurance that their payment was received correctly.
This allows utilities to better serve their customers directly. Staff members have real-time data about a person’s account balance, to help answer inquiries or take action like a void or refund.
With CityBase payment kiosks, utilities own the full customer lifecycle. Customers can make payments with no additional fees, since CityBase never charges customers a transaction fee on a cash payment. Customers who struggle to pay their entire balance at once can use the kiosks to pay their bill in increments throughout the month without being penalized with added fees. Utilities can also offer additional services at the time of payment, such as the option to enroll in payment plans.
Kiosk bill pay is simple and convenient. On average, customers using a CityBase kiosk complete transactions in under a minute for cash, card, and check payments. Customers can look up their account with whatever information they have on hand, such as a service address, account number, phone number, or by scanning a bill or QR code. They immediately receive a receipt — via text, email, or printed — to provide assurance that their payment was successfully processed and reflected in their account.
Digital-first cash payments
Other innovations in utility payment technology provide cash customers more convenience than ever before. Using CityBase technology, utilities can seamlessly accept payments online via credit or debit cards, bank accounts, and now, even cash.
Many cash-preferred customers have access to smartphones but not to credit cards. These customers facing a deadline can avoid late fees and service interruptions by beginning a payment online and completing it in person.
Using session transfer payment technology, an online checkout page provides card, check, and cash options for a customer to select from, on a payment page native to a utility’s website. Customers who decide to pay in cash receive a confirmation that informs them where and how to pay later on a kiosk within a designated time frame, such as within the next 24 hours. Customers scan their confirmation at a kiosk to complete the payment at a time that’s convenient for them.
The technology for online and in-person payment channels are powered by the same CityBase payment platform, enabling customers to access the same information about their account no matter where they pay. On the back end, staff can manage revenue for all transactions in a single place, for online and in-person channels as well as for cash, card, and check payments.
One-stop payment kiosks for utility and government bills
Utilities can anchor a network of one-stop payment kiosks for their communities. Payment kiosks can accommodate payment applications from multiple utilities serving the same customers, such as electric and water utilities. Utilities can choose to partner with city, county, and state governments to put other payment applications on the same machines. This allows walk-in customers one place to pay all their bills in a single visit, such as electric, sewer and water, property taxes, parking tickets, permits, and more.
This means customers no longer need to travel to multiple payment centers or government buildings to stay compliant and up to date on their bills. Kiosks can extend business hours and offer 24/7 service. It provides an additional customer convenience by eliminating travel time, and helps customers avoid lost wages who would normally have to take time off work to make such trips during business hours to pay with a cashier. In a pandemic, it’s an added safety measure that allows walk-in customers a single place to pay, avoiding lines and potentially avoiding entering a building at all when kiosks are outdoors.
Behind the scenes, independent payment workflows keep all one-stop kiosk transactions separate, routed to the appropriate organization and validated to each source system. Billers reduce costs by sharing responsibility for kiosk hardware, operation, and maintenance. A better customer experience leads to higher adoption for a new, low-cost payment channel.
Utilities are uniquely positioned to anchor these networks of one-stop kiosks. Customers typically pay their utility bills once a month, but governments payments are often much less frequent. The regular interaction of utility payments helps increase user adoption, making a payment kiosk more economically viable for utilities. But cash-paying customers need to pay their city bills just as urgently as they need to pay for utilities. Without the option to pay in person for an important civic obligation, these customers may be left to fend for themselves at a time when many government buildings remain closed during the pandemic. Utilities that offer kiosks to their communities can help provide more accessible options to important government services for their customer base.
Partnerships for LIHEAP and other utility-government assistance programs
In addition to providing more in-person service options for their customers, utilities can work with their local governments to improve access to services like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program is administered by government funding and provides direct financial support for people who need help paying their energy bills. Through innovative partnerships across a community, utilities can make it easier for their customers to access funding they qualify for, and also make it easier on themselves to reconcile this funding.
Utilities are ready to step up
CityBase exclusively serves utility and government clients across the United States. In this trying time, we’ve been impressed by how eager utilities are to ramp up innovative technology solutions that make life easier for their customers — providing more options for customers to pay without incurring additional fees, keeping both customers and staff safe with no-contact payment options, and deploying forgiveness and assistance programs that help people who may be struggling with their bills. We’re honored to help utilities launch these solutions. Get in touch by filling out the form below if you want to learn more, or to tell us about your own utility innovation.