As featured on Energy Central…
There are stark differences between a Residential customer and a C&I customer. But when it comes to online billing and payments – the one area with significant impacts to your cash flow – many utility providers are treating these customer segments as one in the same.
“But wait, our C&I customers aren’t using the Residential portal. They have a completely separate instance to view and pay their bills.”
The question is – does the variance continue beyond the login page? Or are you providing your C&I customer with the same online billing and payment functionality as your Residential customer?
Yes, all customers need to pay to their bills but no, the process to do so is not the same for a family of four and a large commercial enterprise.
The consumer payment process is well-defined and consistent across providers and verticals. After the close of the billing cycle, the Residential customer receives a bill from their utility provider. They login, view a quick comparison and move forward with a credit card or bank payment. Or ideally, the account is set to automatic payments – requiring no effort from the customer or provider.
As consumers, we’re driven by convenience. Can you make it easy for me to pay online and remind me when it’s time to pay? Ok, I’m in. A pretty simple value prop that most companies have mastered. Hence the rising e-payment adoption rates that utilities are now experiencing on the Residential front.
On the other hand, C&I customers are looking for convenience + detailed validation + error-proofing + automation + security + integration +…you get the picture.
The C&I payment process is different for each and every customer. After the close of the billing cycle (or multiple cycles depending on the utility’s billing infrastructure), the customer receives invoices representing varying locations and services. In tandem, the customer downloads detailed usage data from a legacy reporting tool or receives a file via email.
The customer then consolidates these invoices and additional data into a single document, which can be organized according to their Accounts Payable structure. This customer-created view now guides the usage and budget validation, identifying any potential billing errors or inefficient usage patterns. It may seem surprising but research shows that over 70% of these AP processes are occurring offline, most commonly in an Excel spreadsheet.
Once validated, payments are then made based on the customer’s grouping of invoices. It’s rare for a business customer to pay all invoices via a single payment. It’s also very uncommon for them to pay each invoice via a single payment. This leaves multiple payments for multiple invoices as the common practice. Essentially, the customer pays 4 of 10 invoices with one payment method, 3 of 10 with another, and so on.
And here’s where the major gap in C&I portal functionality comes into play.
Following a consumer-like approach, the majority of today’s C&I online reporting and payment capabilities are geared towards a single account, single payment methodology. There is no option for organizing or tagging invoices and accounts into groups to analyze (which is why Excel is still a predominant tool). There are no capabilities for applying these customer-defined groupings to guide the customer’s online payment process. There is no option for printing a detailed remittance slip to ease the pain of offline payments. And there is no automated data capture to transmit these multi-payments back to the utility’s Accounts Receivable system.
Unlike the very clear value prop of ‘convenience’ for the Residential customer, C&I customers are still asking ‘what’s the advantage of managing my invoices and payments online?’
Here’s what they want to hear:
So what caused this gap between what’s needed and what’s available for C&I customers?
A digital transformation…on steroids. The movement to get everything and everyone online as quickly as possible has changed the way that organizations operate – both for the provider and the customer. But some providers are now wondering if they should have been walking instead of running.
During this transition period, consumer or Residential best practices were applied to the business experience as well. It looks great and it works as designed. But as demonstrated above, it’s not just about providing online payment capabilities but offering a solution to the disconnect between the utility’s AR and the customer’s AP. In fact for many leading utilities, providing an ill-fit online experience is actually causing more issues than the offline payment experience. Calls to account reps, thousands of single payments, short pays with no explanations, hesitance to adopt portal for other tasks – just to name a few.
C&I customers have given similar feedback on the reporting and analytics front. Although they can now obtain portions of their detail usage and charge data from online portals, very few seem pleased with the comprehensiveness and ease in getting the data they need. Without a convenient and consistent way to view all data, the manual and error-prone ‘traditional’ analysis remain at play.
The differences between Residential and C&I customers are acknowledged and widely leveraged throughout the utility’s organization. Product delivers different services, Marketing presents different offers, and Sales employs a different approach.
But when it comes for paying for those services, that tailored experience comes to a halt. If utilities are committed to digital transformation, Billing and Digital teams must collaborate on delivering a digital payment experience that C&I customers will happily embrace.
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