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Utilities expert Gary Sanders has partnered together with MuniBilling to help give readers an in-depth look into the world of Utility Billing Systems.
For today's Ask The Expert blog, we'll focus on how Effectively Communicating can promote healthy client/customer symmetry. Gary Sanders gives feedback on what he's learned and observed in the field.
Let me start by saying that my area of expertise isn’t public relations, but I do have a few ideas about effective communication strategies.
Social media is an excellent way for utilities to communicate with their customers.It’s important to post something multiple times because, with customers’ online habits and social media algorithms, you aren’t assured that every post will be viewed.
There’s an old sales adage that applies here, as well:
“Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” In other words, if it’s important, repeat it multiple times.
I attended a utility conference last year where one of the presentations was about social media. When the presenter asked for a show of hands of how many of the utility attendees used social media, very few hands went up.
It turns out the reason why was dealing with negative feedback from customers.
The presenter went on to explain about blocking abusive users and deleting inaccurate negative comments, which are both necessary and effective to maintaining a positive social media presence for your utility.
Another important aspect of effective social media communications is to respond from the official utility account to correct inaccurate information.
As a case in point, a colleague of my recently directed me to a social media post from his hometown municipal utility system. This utility used a Facebook post to inform their customers that they were implementing a convenience fee for online debit and credit card payments.
This utility made a couple serious mistakes with this post:
First, they posted it on the day the policy went into effect, with no advance notice.
Secondly, there are no responses from the utility’s official account, even to the very first question which asked “How can we pay our bills without fees?”
This utility offers bank drafts (as I hope your utility does!) at no cost to the customer, but never mentioned it until the mayor responded from her personal account the next day. A prompt, official response might have eliminated several negative comments on the thread.
Ensuring that your customers know the due date for their bill is critical.
If your billing software offers the capability of sending text message alerts, allowing your customers to select how many days before the due date they would like to be reminded is great customer service.
Finally, if you bill all of your customers at the same time (i.e., you don’t have multiple billing cycles with multiple due dates), posting a reminder on social media a few days before the due date is helpful.
Keeping up with dynamic environments will help ensure a successful outcome.
When you first introduce a customer portal, publicize it as much as you can.
Send press releases to all the local news outlets and feature it on all your social media outlets for a few weeks before the portal officially launches.
Your customer portal should be featured prominently on your web site, ideally with a link from the home page so your customers don’t have to search to find it.
If you provide new customers with a welcome guide, be sure that describes the benefits of using your customer portal, along with a link to the portal.
Another effective way of advertising the customer portal is posters in your office. Walk-in customers are the very people you want to use your portal to reduce foot traffic in your office.
Be sure your bill, both paper and electronic versions, includes a link to your customer portal.
As with due date reminders, if you offer e-billing, be sure the email notification includes a link to your customer portal.
The same holds true for any upcoming due date reminders. No matter if printed, electronic, or social media, they should all include a link to your customer portal.
I mentioned a welcome guide above. I’ve seen some utilities provide very informative welcome guides which include such information as when bills are sent, when they are due, ways to pay, what number to call if the customer has an emergency, etc.
Ideally, make a list of the most common questions your customers ask and include the answers to these in your welcome guide.
But more important than a printed or electronic welcome guide is your staff.
A friendly customer service rep, whether in-person or over the phone, willing to answer any questions is the most effective method of communication you have.
Gary's 40+ years of experience in the industry has granted him valuable knowledge for any billing entity. With the wealth of his knowledge, you can request an Operational Analysis for your organization from him!
You may be wondering, what exactly is an Operational Analysis? Well, it essentially is when Gary looks through ALL of your systems, and interviews your team, to figure out how best you can improve your billing operations.
Here are a few of your organization's systems that Gary will assess:
The end goal of this analysis is to figure out how to best save your organization time and money. This could also mean suggesting another company's platform if it's the better fit for YOU.
Gary has hosted his own blog for the past ten years. Some of his more notable credentials are that he has designed, built, implemented, and supported both ERPs and Utility Billing Systems. Thankfully, he's only a hop, skip, and jump away.