The SmartBill: How City of Tallahassee’s eBilling Program is Exceeding Expectations
• By Jessica C. Lumpkin, Associate Editor
Before smartphones existed people used their cell phones for the most basic forms of communication—making quick phone calls and sending occasional text messages. Now making phone calls is nearly a lost art form. With new communication channels dominated by mobile phone applications, it is extremely easy and common for consumers to pull out their phone to check the weather forecast, watch a video clip, research a product, book a flight, and pay their bills.
The growing mobile market has resulted in a migration from paper to paperless electronic billing. Traditional paper-based billers, including municipalities and utilities, have increasingly changed the way customers receive their bill over the last decade by securely delivering e-bills via email and offering a new level of convenience for customers to make secure electronic payments.
The City of Tallahassee (COT) Utilities is a leader in this customer-friendly strategy. In 2009, COT partnered with Striata, a firm specializing in secure electronic document delivery, and began a strategic plan focusing on continuous activities to drive paperless adoption. COT set a three-year goal of 12% for paper-bill suppression, and achieved this goal in just 10-months. Today, according to Striata Coporations, COT is ranked as “one of the highest utilities in the nation” for e-billing with 40,000 customers enjoying the convenience of making payments directly from the body of an emailed bill statement.
“Within 2009 at the onset of our e-billing journey, we requested customers’ email address at every customer contact,” said Director of Customer Operations James Barnes. “In a very short period of time we were able to validate and add over 60,000 emails accurately to our database. This, along with an outreach of branding initiatives for the SmartBill allowed us to bring our strategic plan to educate customers and save from eco-friendly bills full-circle.”
When asked about the buy-in process for employees, Barnes indicated that the transition came relatively quickly. “The very first phase to a successful e-bill program is to ensure valid email address entry,” Barnes said. “This challenge was an education and a transition for our employees.” Talks with staff about how the world has moved toward contacting customers via text and emails in every different level of commerce birthed a level of acceptance amongst COT employees that made for a very easy transition.
“There was no level of resistance from staff at all,” Barnes said. “We talked about the change-process and had the perfect conditions and a workforce that was coming full circle with new ways of contacting customers.” Barnes explained that COT’s marketing department held a critical role supporting the utility’s e-billing journey by engaging with employees and helping to come up with fun ways to capture emails, as well as promote the advantages of electronic bills internally and externally.
“Our marketing department branded our electronic billing statement with a very catchy name—the SmartBill,” Barnes said. “This ingredient, along with employee buy-in, as we overlaid a change management process, worked in unison to bring us to a point that we now have over one-third of our customer base using electronic bills.”
The growing mobile market has resulted in the increase of consumer reliability on mobile phones and high expectations of seamless mobile experiences with service providers. The COT Utilities actionable insight into their consumer’s behaviors allowed for a successful customer buy-in right along with the advent of smartphones. “As more and more of our customers started using smartphones to interact with their business demands—rather it be banking, or reading emails—our automatic connection to customers was the SmartBill,” Barnes said. “We were just riding a tide of early and middle adopters that started to do things in a transient manner on their tablets and their smartphones.”
According to Barnes, the SmartBill offers benefits to both the utility and customers that are a win-win to both parties. “Customers don’t have to go to the mail,” said Barnes. “They’re going to get an email at approximately the same time every month, and as they review their normal emails, they can also review their SmartBill and attain their COT Utility statement covering electric, gas, and water services.”
Reducing paper and postage through electronic billing is a top priority for traditional paper-based billers, and the SmartBill has contributed to COT’s eco-friendly environment. “The workforce and the employees do not have to worry about printing, the cost of postage, envelopes, paper, ink, and dye,” said Barnes. “We’re not wasting paper or building fumes from vehicle delivery. This allows us to streamline our internal processes of what we can do to assist customers.”
Since the onset of the SmartBill, COT is saving thousands annually; however, Barnes explained that their motivation behind the SmartBill is not internal saving. “The real benefit is the eco-friendly environment, and further, the ability to give customers choices,” Barnes said. “E-billing is not the solution for all customers, but if customers want to engage via email, phone, text, or our website, we are able to provide them with these options.”
Since its inception, the SmartBill process has gone through several iterations. “Our latest focus is ‘one-click,’ so that when customer’s open their SmartBill they are ‘one-click’ away from making a secure payment,” Barnes said. “We also layer initiatives to support the SmartBill concept with customers. Customers are notified by text so that they are aware if they are pending suspension of services due to an oversight. There is always a connection when our customers need us. We also make sure that we engage with them if they are out of power so that they know that we are resolving their energy loss, and then email, or text them when we restore power.”
The COT Utilities credits its e-billing success to engaging its customers where they want it, how they want it in a way that best fits their lifestyle. “We look at a variety of things that is not normal engagement for most utilities,” said Barnes. “The City of Tallahassee is engaged in over 160 community outreach programs annually, and we have the ability to notify customers via email and text of community activities and events. As a utility we are invested in our community, we our active in our neighborhood associations, and we are open 7-days a week from 7 am to 11 pm with one number, (850)891-4YOU for utility assistance.