Most of us experience anxiety when we open our monthly utility bill. Depending on the total cost, some of us feel frustration and/or confusion and/or anger. It is human nature for these negative emotions to stick with customers, even though the incidences of unusually high bills may not be frequent. But still it is important that water utilities address this aspect of their operations because it is critical to building public trust and changing behavior.
Our water bill is the only guaranteed and regular contact that a water utility has with its customers. How then can improvements in billing help customers find what they need, understand it and act appropriately, so as to avoid placing outright blame on the utility?
Before providing some solutions, let us first acknowledge that receiving a bill is never going to be a pleasant experience. However, most water bills only aggravate customers because there is no clear explanation or justification for the amount owed, which is further exacerbated by varying monthly costs.
Simple steps to improve the legibility of a water bill can go a long way in reducing public angst and utility costs from operating call centers for example. A report from OPower found that “between 30 and 50 percent of calls are about billing.” In addition, when customized guidance is provided explaining usage it helps create a sense of ownership – this is key.
Below is a summary of easily adoptable solutions for water and wastewater utilities to improve the billing experience with the aim of improving public trust and understanding. The recommendations are based on our preliminary analysis of water bills from over 10 utilities and guidance provided in peer-reviewed literature.Billing Options:
According to a 2015 study released by the United States Postal Service (USPS), “offering a variety of bill delivery and payment options can lead to higher customer satisfaction.” The same report explains that survey data gathered from ‘a major U.S. utility’ shows that 90 percent of customers prefer to get their bills in the mail despite how ‘digital savvy’ they be.
In recent years, electronic bills are increasingly the preferred form of notification and payment. In 2016, J.D. Power stated in their Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study that “Billing and payment satisfaction among the 31% of customers who receive their bill electronically is much higher than among those who receive a paper bill...”
Based on the studies above, the recommendation is - while customers prefer to receive paper bills and make payments online, current trends suggest that there is greater customer satisfaction from electronic bills. Therefore, for utilities that do not have electronic billing options, now is a good time to seriously consider implementation.
As electronic options become the most preferred method of payment, utilities should look into mobile apps. A utility that readily implements technology to improve customer experiences and increase insight on water use significantly contributes to a higher approval rating.
In the same vein, using text alerts as a way to notify in advance of an upcoming bill (with helpful tips to manage and conserve) helps the customer to mentally prepare and plan appropriately, thus reducing the impact of “billing shock.”
Format and Design:
The average human attention span is 12 seconds. Bills should be formatted and designed with this fact in mind. The first thing people do is go to the total – this is when the 12 second countdown begins to understand and determine if they resent their water utility enough to call. Here are some fundamentals of an effective bill format that will reduce the likeliness of a negative reaction and/or perception:
- Design that puts information in a logical order
- Visuals to make data easy to understand
- Hierarchy of information where the most important goes first
- Simple and easy to understand language
- Language that is in active voice and uses strong verbs
- Tone should demonstrate concern for the customer and anticipate questions
Most customers do not know how much water they are using, not because that information is not on the bill, but because familiarity with some of the measuring units such as CCF (centum cubic feet). Most customers are familiar with gallons as a measuring unit. Converting the units helps create a reference point. A good example is the infographic from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Once a reference point is defined it makes it easier for the customer to better understand and compare current usage. Making the information relatable is one step to educating customers toward becoming water aware and taking ownership over usage and thus, their bills. Communicating in a manner that is relevant to customers is important to helping them better understanding the function of the utility services.
Another very helpful tool is a chart that shows usage over a period of 12 months. Charts allow customers to compare and track usage on a month to month and seasonal basis.
Easy-to-read charts (see below) are a great way to customize information and thus empower them as it relates to their household habits and patterns. Customized data can also be accompanied with possible explanations for unusually high bills empowers the customer to investigate issues related to leaks or irrigation systems on their property.
Sapna Mulki is a guest contributor and leads Hahn Public’s water practice area. Sapna consults with clients on water issues ranging from conservation outreach to rate structure communication. Sapna has over 10 years of experience in environmental conservation, policy and research. She has worked in diverse environments and on a myriad of issues from great ape conservation at the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya, to policy research on energy efficient technologies in buildings with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.
 United States Postal Service (USPS). February 9, 2015. Will the Check Be in the Mail? Retrieved from https://www.uspsoig.gov/sites/default/files/document-library-files/2015/rarc-wp-15-006_0.pdf.
 USPS. p.1
 J.D.Power. 18 May 2016. Robust Water Infrastructure Is Essential to Customer Satisfaction; Water Quality and Reliability Are Critical, Says Inaugural J.D. Power Water Study. Retrieved from http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2016-water-utility-residential-customer-satisfaction-study
 Hahn Public Communications. 2015. Rate Case Messaging: The Character/Competency Conundrum. Retrieved from https://www.hahnpublic.com/portfolio-item/utilities-whitepaper/
 OPower. 2015. Moments that Matter: A deep dive into the customer experience during utility billing.