As we approach Halloween, our thoughts turn to things that scare us, and many of us experience anxiety when we open our monthly utility bill. If our charges are higher than anticipated, we also feel frustration, confusion, or anger. It is human nature for these negative emotions to stick with us. Even though unusually high bills may not really be frequent, water utilities should always be aware of how the impact of the bill itself is critical to winning public trust and changing customer behavior.
Water bills are the only guaranteed, regular channel by which a water utility communicates with its customers. How can improvements in billing help customers find the information they need, understand it and act appropriately; building their own satisfaction instead of laying blame on the utility? Here are three simple strategies that can help:
1. Take Advantage of Technology
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, regardless of how ‘digital savvy’ they might be or how willing they are to pay their bills online.
However, research suggests that those who choose electronic channels for notification and payment may be more satisfied than the customer base at large. In 2016, J.D. Power stated in its 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…”
For utilities that do not currently offer electronic billing and communication options, now is a good time to seriously consider implementation. According to Hahn Public’s own research, customers respond positively to the fact that utilities offer technology solutions that improve customer experiences and increase insight on water use.
In addition to e-mail communications, 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.”
2. Demystify water usage
Most customers do not know how much water they use — not because their utilities do not include that information on the bill, but because they lack understanding of industry jargon such as CCF (centum cubic feet). Most customers are familiar with gallons as a measuring unit; this infographic from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does a good job of communicating water usage patterns in a language that everyday people understand.
Communicating in ways that are relatable for the customer helps them become water-aware and allows them to develop a sense of ownership over their usage and bills, which in turn builds satisfaction. Some applications allow customers to compare their usage with similar households, which helps foster a sense of healthy competition that prompts conservation.
Another helpful tool to include in the billing statement 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, which often leads to behavior change in order to reduce their total cost and usage.
3. Make the bill tell a story
“Data from one U.S. utility shows that an average household spends between four and six minutes combing through a single billing statement.” The first thing customers do is go to the total – this is when the countdown begins for the customer to understand the bill and then determine if they blame their water utility enough to call and complain.
During those four to six minutes, utilities can make the bill itself tell the story the customer needs to hear about water usage and the opportunity to conserve. Both of the prior recommendations — using technology tools and providing user-friendly data on usage — are techniques that help tell that story. In addition, here are some fundamentals of an effective bill format that will reduce the likeliness of negative perceptions and reactions that damage customer satisfaction:
- Design that puts information in a logical order
- Visuals that make data easy to understand
- Hierarchy of information that places the most important first
- Language that is simple and easy to understand using an active voice and strong verbs
- Tone that demonstrates concern for the customer
- Information that answers anticipated questions
 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. p.1
 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.