The city of Clinton’s Finance Department has implemented measures toward increasing efficiency and customer service, while educating residents of the importance of prompt bill payment, and has rolled out a new-look bill in hopes of furthering that effort.
Shawn Purvis, assistant city manager and finance officer, outlined some of the new customer service practices being instituted by the city’s Finance Department aimed at educating and assisting utility customers about billing. City manager John Connet presented an overview of some bill changes being made during the City Council’s recent meeting.
According to Purvis, the Billing and Collections division handles approximately 4,200 utility bills each month, with nearly 20 percent of accounts submitting payments after the monthly due date during 2010-11 — that corresponded to about $60,000. Nearly 60 percent of customers paying late also received phone calls to prevent cutoff, with 72 percent of those paying before cutoff. Those accounts cut off accounted for 3.2 percent of all monthly bills in 2010-11.
Purvis said, in a year’s time, that number of cutoffs has been decreased due to the work of the city’s finance employees. that included polling delinquent payers on obstacles they encountered.
“To reduce the number of late payments and improve customer service, collections personnel were required to interact with each late customer, seeking answers to why was the customer paying late and if there was anything the city could do to help,” Purvis stated.
Some common findings included that residents: were not aware of the due date, or assumed the cutoff date was the due date; did not know how much was owed with late of cutoff fees; did not receive the bill in a timely manner to pay; or that companies were making payments through third parties.
That feedback prompted a bill design change, one that Connet discussed with Council members during their recent regular meeting.
“As we’ve talked to our customers about why they may be making their payments late, a lot of them didn’t realize the due date,” said Connet. “In an effort to really draw their attention, we have made those dates and that amount in bold.”
Also included on the bill are two other amounts, one showing customers the punishment for paying late — a 10 percent additional tack-on fee — and another figure factoring in the amount someone would have to pay upon having their service cut off completely. That figure, which is the total of the original bill, plus the 10 percent fee and a $30 cutoff charge, is assessed for those bills not paid before the indicated cutoff date 10 days after the due date.
“It gives them a comparison of how much they save if they pay by the due date, in an incentive to try and get them to pay (on time),” said Connet.
Purvis said laws place restrictions as to when the city can cut off services, which in turn delays billing. That short window creates problems for many customers, including those who send their bills to a third party for payment.
“Staff is working to implement online bill pay to make it easier to help customers to pay in a short period,” Purvis said. “In the meantime, staff has made some special efforts to help customers, including faxing statements before they are mailed and adjusting the dates on the billing statement to have people come in the day before cutoff.”
The result has been a reduction in the number of phone calls for cutoffs and the actual number of cutoffs themselves.
“In 2011-12, the total number of late bills was up 1 percent, however the total number of accounts receiving cutoff notices was down 12 percent,” Purvis stated. “The total number cut off was down 17 percent to an average of 112 per month, or 2.7 percent of accounts (down from 3.2 percent). The actual number of cutoffs has decreased by an average of 22 a month.”
Along with stressing the due date and cutoff dates, the new bill design also brings with it an addition of a bar graph showing a customer’s usage throughout the previous 12 months. Connet said the overall goal was to try and make the bills less busy and more user-friendly, while adding some relevant and useful information.
“I know previous bills that I’ve gotten at my house, I’ve thought ‘I’d like to know how I compare to last month,’” said Connet. “You see that on a lot of your electrical bills. Here, you’ll have a year’s usage. So, if you have a leak or a plumbing appliance that is not working properly, you can compare the usage from one month to another. We thought that was a great improvement.”
He lauded finance staff for their work, and said city residents would see the new — and city officials believe, improved — look this month.
“We’re going to try and roll this out with the October billing,” said Connet, “in trying to improve service to our customers, and try to reduce the number of late bills and delinquent bills so customers are not penalized.”
Purvis recommended the new bill design, which he identified as just another step toward improving customer service.
“Finance staff believes we are moving in the right direction but recommends implementing the proposed bill design to identify more clearly the actual date and the amount each customer owes,” said Purvis, also noting the corresponding amounts for late and cutoff fees. “This may encourage customers to pay on time by presenting their potential savings for timely payments.
“The goal is to improve service efficiency and assist customers in paying on time and not receiving penalty charges,” he continued, “which is more money saved for the customer.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.