Procurement 16 March 2017

How to improve your billing practices and keep customers

energy bill
Three quarters of consumers will encounter a billing error at some point

A recent spate of major billing mistakes has seen the likes of British Gas and Vodafone suffer from large fines and a weathering of trust among customers. Here, expert outsourcer at Echo Managed Services, Chris Cullen, tells business owners how they can achieve better billing practices.

Technology has transformed how we do business – streamlining processes and cutting costs while working to improve efficiency.

Billing is one such process that has seen a marked change, with automated solutions replacing traditional clerical operations. Bills are now generated automatically through software and delivered under instruction – whether that’s physically through a letterbox or electronically to an email inbox.

But, it’s not all plain-sailing for those companies undergoing digital transformations as technology can be just as prone to errors as humans are.

In fact, as recently as this month, there has been a major issue with SSE smart meters which has caused thousands of pounds to be added to customers’ bills. And this isn’t an occurrence in isolation – British Gas had a similar issue due to an IT glitch which saw customers charged double just before Christmas.

Over the last 12 months, it seems billing blunders are becoming more common and befalling a growing number of companies from various industries.

What are these companies getting wrong?

At one point or another, the 75 per cent of consumers will encounter a billing error – whether it’s due to inaccurate meter readings, the wrong details being held or an IT failure causing a customer to be overcharged.

While this isn’t ideal, it’s often easily resolved with a refund and an apology. But when the same mistakes are repeated, happen frequently and could have been avoided, or when the issue becomes a headache to resolve, businesses fall into ill-favour with customers.

Other billing issues include customers not being put on the most cost-effective or appropriate tariffs to suit their needs – affecting up to 15 per cent of consumers.

This, plus an increasing lack of transparent and proactive communication, puts businesses in dangerous territory when it comes to customer satisfaction and trust.

The cost of billing shortfalls and mishaps

Getting billing wrong is costly for businesses on two fronts. Firstly, it can result in hefty fines from industry watchdogs, as Vodafone discovered when it was fined £4.6m by Ofcom for failing to treat customers fairly and breaching industry billing rules.

Secondly, and more worryingly, it can lead to a loss of custom, with up to 45 per cent of consumers considering switching to a competitor, and one in seven saying they would switch without hesitation, if faced with a poor billing service. The long-term impact of this, of lost business and the erosion of trust, comes at a much higher price than just the imposed fines.

When bills are inaccurate, it is costly to customers – forcing a growing number into arrears. Last year, our report found that more than a third of payments made late were as a result of a billing problem (including inaccurate and overly-complicated bills).

Driving your own customers into debt shatters trust, weakens loyalty, creates animosity and heightens frustrations. This is the last thing any business wants in an ever-competitive marketplace.

Four ways to improve billing and customer experience

Businesses that address where they’re going wrong and work to improve billing practices will significantly improve the customer experience. Here’s how they can do it:

(1) Ditch the jargon – clearer bills now

Using technical terms and industry jargon only serves to confuse consumers and complicate the payment process. Our most recent report found that bills aren’t getting any easier to understand for the majority of customers – this is something that businesses need to address fast or they risk losing out on a valuable customer touchpoint.

(2) Opening lines of communication is crucial

The lines of communication must always be open so that customers have access to knowledgeable and empathetic staff who are on-hand to help with a billing query or issue. Customers who wish to, should be able to pick up the telephone and speak to a real person, rather than just an automated service. There is real value in the human touch. Businesses that offer this will likely restore customer trust, strengthen loyalty and build rapport. 

(3) Offering payment alerts before billing date

Given that bill shock is one of the main reasons why consumers fail to make a payment on time, it makes sense for businesses to be proactive in contacting customers before a payment is due with the billing date and amount. Something as simple as an SMS text message or email ensures customers are reminded without feeling harassed. It also gives the customer time to get the money in their account and to make the company aware of any issues.

(4) Choice when it comes to bill delivery

Each customer is an individual and so should be given a choice as to how they would like to receive their bills. Despite the obvious cost-efficiency of online billing, one in four customers prefer paper bills so it’s important not to alienate this group by removing the option or charging for it.

Clearly, there are a number of straightforward actions businesses can take to improve billing practices and win back customer favour.

As consumers become less tolerant of poor service, and more confident in their spending power, it is critical companies get billing correct and ensure they’re meeting customer expectations. Recognising where they’re going wrong, and doing what they can to repair the damage now, will pay-off, and out, in the long-run.

Chris Cullen is the head of sales and marketing at specialist outsourcer at Echo Managed Services

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