Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Customer Billing Service?

It was comforting to hear the patronising tones of British Gas CEO, Bob Bentley, on the radio this morning sounding as if he has had an epiphany when it comes to billing customers. Bless him, he finds the bills his company issues complicated to read and therefore has some empathy with his customers.

Rather nicely of him, he has now decided that 'Estimated Bills' should be done away with. Instead, customers can call in or text their latest readings with only the odd spot check to keep them on the straight and narrow. How very thoughtful of him.

It sounds like this is an enormous innovation in customer service but it hardly moves the needle in reality. Sure, we can now get more accurate monthly or quarterly bills and so smooth the payments better and not have those shocking bills periodically when the utility company gets around to read the meters they own and run, but are these companies providing a real service?

True, they provide gas and electricity to homes - thanks. But in most cases, like the phone company or milkman, they do not provide accurate billing regularly and without customer intervention. The onus, in most usual instances, is on the company providing the service to provide an accurate record and bill of the customer usage and to make payments easy. The meter is provided by them and for them to read, so life could not be much easier for the utility companies really. In fact, these meters have not changed in tens of years despite all these utilities posting nice profits; the billing technology and base mechanisms have not been updated for ages and the onus is right back on the customers to intervene and question bills, estimated or otherwise. And when you do so, boy, are you are in for problems as they do not believe a word you say - the subject of an earlier blog.

It is remarkable in these modern times that at least an upgrade cannot be fitted or new meters put in which negate the need for them to be read by humans at all. It may cost money but I am sure the long term return would be there if they charged just a tiny amount per quarter for the new meter. It isn't rocket science - it's actually, in my opinion, their responsibility to do so and the racketeering we have seen on utility bills over the years has, I am sure, caused customers to pay significantly over the odds for their utility bills. I know that is likely to be the case as it happened to me.

And here's the best of the new billing companies - Transport for London (TFL). Yes, they introduced the Congestion Charge for Central London with a state of the art billing system that required the customer to pay and it was strictly cash on the day or now up to 24 hours later - you miss, your responsibility even though you never asked for the whole thing. It is important also to draw a distinction here - the Congestion Charge is not a service, it's a straight local tax which is entirely incumbent on the individual to pay. If you were a sporadic user of the roads in London or, heaven forbid, a visitor then you were basically stuffed. The onus was on you to know exactly where the limits of the zones were and how to pay - and it isn't that simple. Until recently, the website had an issue with the latest version of Windows - which they denied - that stopped you paying online. But if you made a simple mistake or forgot for 24 hours, the penalties are unforgiving and more than those for assaulting people.

It's draconian and stupid. The technology was put in there from day one to capture images and number plate recognition. They have always had the capability to set up automated billing and it is an absolute crime that they did not implement this from the start.

It is the basic premise - you want to bill people for using roads, then you set up the system for them to pay without even having to think about it. It's a tax in all but name and, boy, do we know the taxman likes to make sure he or she gets her money without the hindrance of human intervention. For TFL, it was always the case to be able to get as many penalty charges in as possible and Capita, the system designers and operators, are superb at making money for old rope.

The day will come when all companies who want to charge for their services set up billing systems which make it simple, easy and automated for customers to pay. I think it's a basic responsibility for being in business.

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