Opower’s Consumer Insights team is fresh off another round of research into the needs and motivations that drive utility customers’ behavior. The latest survey dug deep into 175,000 consumers’ attitudes toward their energy bills. The key takeaway: the billing experience is full of moments that matter to utility customers. By delivering a higher level of service at a few critical junctures in the billing cycle — through proactive alerts, and personalized insights — utilities can meet customers' rising expectations, raise satisfaction, and lower service costs. In case you’re short on time, here are eight key statistics that encapsulate our findings.
1. 79% of households say they read every bill
Most people don’t spend a lot of time interacting with their utilities. But do they pay attention to their bills. In a recent survey, 79 percent of households — four in five — told us that they read each statement they receive. That’s an exceptional engagement rate for any communication in any industry.
2. People review their bills for 4 to 6 minutes
In fact, utility customers don’t just read their bills. They read them carefully. Data from one U.S. utility shows that an average household spends between four and six minutes combing through a single billing statement. The big takeaway is that people want insight into their bills, on their bills. They’re looking for helpful data to explain their energy use.
3. Most households remember high bills
All of this is good news for utilities. The bad news is that even though customers show a lot of interest in their bills, the experience of actually reading them is usually forgettable. Or, if it’s not forgettable, it’s frustrating. Seventy-two percent of utility customers remember receiving a particularly expensive energy bill at some point in the past, according to new survey data. Most of them report feeling anxiety as a result, and half of them say high bills have caused problems that could have been avoided if they knew about them in advance. Bill shock is problematic for utilities, too: it leads to call center calls, truck rolls, and trouble with revenue collection, all of which impact the bottom line.
4. A surprise high bill doubles the odds a customer will switch energy providers
Customers worldwide report lower satisfaction when they experience bill shock. In places where they can choose their energy provider, they also feel less loyalty. Across Europe, people who have been surprised by high utility bills are more than twice as likely to say they intend to switch retailers in the next 12 months.
5. Four in five customers want bill alerts
How can utilities deliver a great billing experience? It’s all about putting customers in control. When you ask households what kinds of utility services they value, proactive billing alerts — ones that identify unusual bills in advance — are near the top of the list. Four in five customers say they're important (see the far left of the chart): That said, just 37 percent of customers are satisfied with the high bill experience they’re getting today. There’s a huge gap between expectations and reality.
6. High bills are in the eye of the beholder
A lot of utilities want to deliver the billing alerts customers expect. The challenge is that it’s actually pretty difficult to identify households that are tracking toward high bills. You need technology like predictive analytics. Why? Because what seems like a high bill to one person won’t even register for another. Bill shock depends on all kinds variables; for the sake of example, take a look at the effect household income has on the high bill threshold (measured as a percent increase over an average bill): On average, the threshold for bill shock is roughly 20 percent above normal for households earning under $50,000 a year, 34 percent above normal for those earning $50,000 to $100,000, and 63 percent above normal for people earning more than that. Other variables — demographic and behavioral — exert similar influence over customers’ attitudes toward individual bills.
7. Billing is the #1 driver behind call center calls
To systematically identify thousands, or even millions, of customers who are tracking toward high bills, then give them personalized advice on how to lower those bills, utilities have to invest in technology. But it’s an investment that pays off. Worldwide, energy providers spend about $30 billion dollars every year on customer care. A lot of that goes toward call center operations that are, in turn, driven by billing-related inquiries. By using proactive alerts to give customers more control over their bills, utilities can directly address the primary reason they make expensive calls to the call center. That’s good for customer satisfaction, and its good for the bottom line.
8. Alerts can lower high bill call volume 19%
New Zealand’s Mercury Energy was one of the first utilities to pioneer high bill alerts. It was also one of the first to see them pay off. In the span of a year, Mercury lowered its high bill call volume by a whopping 19 percent. Not only that, it also raised customer satisfaction by 5 percent. Of course, alerts aren’t the only way utilities can give customers more confidence about billing. In the event that a household does receive a high bill, personalized insights can clearly identify what caused it. Equipping call center representatives with similar data can do even more to elevate the customer experience. The common thread in all these approaches is information. By using technology to give households visibility during every step of the billing journey — from before their bills arrive to after they’ve acted on them — utilities can deliver a deeper, more satisfying billing experience that builds trust and lowers cost.