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Startup Grind

Obsess Over the Right Details to Earn Customer Trust

Most people pay their utility bills online. That’s about as convenient as it gets, to the point that we don’t think about our bills unless something goes wrong.

by Kelli Palm

But for the unbanked and underbanked population — some 27 percent of US households — online bill pay often isn’t even an option. In many cases, utilities can’t be paid for by mailing a check.

People in the 33.5 million US households are un-banked OR underbanked often pay their utility bills in cash or at a payment center.

For someone who doesn’t have a credit card, paying a utility bill takes more forethought than simply logging into a website.

One important lesson: most people using a kiosk have never used a kiosk before — and here they are making this kind of essential payment.

As a result of most of the customers and clients not ever using a kiosk before — there are huge implications to achieve on the self-guided design front before production takes place. Essentially, a kiosk or any equipment needs to be intuitive and rewarding enough to use that it will earn people’s trust on it’s own merits, the first time the item is used.

When selling a B2B product or service, trust must be earned. The product or service must answer the question of when and how the customer expects to use it. If the producing company doesn’t become a little obsessive to build something good enough to earn customer trust — they probably shouldn’t be in business. However, it’s essential to obsess over the right details.

Here are the ones that have proven most important to our work.

Convenience Is Crucial

For a person who is un-banked or underbanked and paying in cash, or someone with a looming bill due date who doesn’t live or work near a payment center — the options to make a payment are limited.

Most utility payment centers are open only during office hours. That’s a problem for people who have to be at work during those hours.

Historically, utility companies solved the problem by offering an after-hours dropbox where customers could leave payments.

These “after hours drops” are not an ideal solution for several reasons:

  1. Limited tender types:
    A 24-hour dropbox is specifically for checks or a credit card number written on a bill stub. Cash is not allowed — although cash payments happen regularly.
  2. Posting delay.
    Money put in the dropbox after closing hours don’t post to accounts until at least the next day. This process could mean a customer pays on time but doesn’t get credit for it, which can trigger fines or service cutoff.
  3. Imprecise account tracking.
    Some of our clients told us their customers put cash in a dropbox paper-clipped to a piece of paper with their last name on it (e.g., incomplete information). The utility company wasn’t able to process the payment until a customer called to ask why it hadn’t posted.

Designed right, kiosks can solve all three of these problems.

Through-wall kiosk models let customers make payments after business hours at a payment center. Utility companies can also make freestanding kiosks available at multiple locations across their service area. This makes it even more convenient for customers who don’t live or work near payment centers.

The technology behind kiosks means payments can post instantly, which prevents service cutoffs. It also means customers can’t make a payment without first connecting to their account, reducing human error and ensuring payments go through correctly.

A person who knows they have to pay their water bill by the end of the day or risk having service disconnected is probably not having a great day. If they have the option to pay via a 24/7 kiosk — things get better. The individual can then make a payment on their own personal schedule and know they’ll be able to enjoy a hot shower in the morning.

The First Experience Matters

Many people tend to be skeptical of new technology. This is especially true of technologies that take your money. So it’s important that customers have a positive first experience.

If you’re trying to pay your bill at a kiosk but you don’t know your account number because you didn’t bring your bill stub, you might turn around and get in line for a customer service rep. Never mind that there are alternate ways to look up your account at a payment kiosk. If that’s your first kiosk experience, you may never go back. That’s bad news for utility and other companies that invest in a kiosk infrastructure.

It’s important to have greeters on hand at your business initially to walk people through their first transaction. Greeters at payment centers can introduce new kiosk technology to the customers. Helping people have a positive first impression and experience with any new tech developments can growth-hack your business. Troubleshooting issues or helping to set expectations with your customers is a positive, actionable step, as well.

A greeter is going to cost your business a whole lot less than common mistakes being made continually. A greeter can help a customer look up their account using their service address or phone number. A greeter can also gently suggest the customer or client may want to bring a bill stub next billing cycle.

A kiosk should provide change, but if it doesn’t provide this service — a greeter can educate customers to bring the exact amount due next time. If the functionality exists, greeters can explain how a customer’s overpayment goes toward their next bill. Or an added service might go towards having a customer pay a few cents extra each month in order to get a full payment ahead.

As a business, it may become important to you, personally, to show greeters how to handle interactions of different and individual types. Create training manuals for greeters so they can walked through interactions with customers and clients before hand, and review the process if it is forgotten. Providing this service in person helps all customers to be knowledgeable and feel confident about using the kiosks.

Our kiosk clients are also trained in how to educate their own customers. Each client will want to have their own customers pay in ways that will work best for that individual in their business. We want to make sure that the money being utilized is not torn and is rendered in whole dollar amounts — close to the amount they intend to pay. Once that message is clearly communicated, customers know what to expect and will come prepared for their next kiosk payment experience.

Confidence Is Paramount

For a business to garner success, customers must feel confident about using the product or service. You will want your customers to feel comfortable interacting with their utility provider, if your kiosk equipment is the product. Clients need confidence that they can easily find their necessary information, that their account information is accurate, and know the timeframe in which their payments will be posted. We can cultivate this confidence by building individual client applications that meet their users’ needs in each business.

A kiosk application that shows someone their full balance is helpful. It’s even more helpful to notify someone if their service is eligible for disconnection. A client or customer likes to know what their minimum payment must be to avoid disconnection, and what the deadline is to satisfy their balance.

Providing the right details to all parties concerned can make all the difference for customers and clients who may be struggling to make a payment. Complete knowledge empowers people to make strategic decisions about their own lives. This would be the goal.

Thorough information assures customers that their utility provider is taking proactive steps to provide uninterrupted service. A positive customer service experience during a time that could otherwise be overwhelming is a plus in any business.

The Larger Context Matters (A Lot)

From your clients you can learn that keeping the big-picture questions in mind is the most important aspect of a business. For example:

  • Why are customers at a payment center in the first place?
    The best-case scenario is that they are there to pay a bill, most likely in cash. Currently, cash payments make up about 65 percent of payment-center transactions. The worst-case scenario is that they’re on the brink of having service disconnected. These customers are concerned about making sure their payments post immediately.
  • What are they sacrificing to be at the payment center?
    Everybody juggles multiple priorities — working, spending time with family or friends, getting groceries, etc. When people are forced to spend time paying a bill, even a small glitch in the system can be highly frustrating.
  • How do employees feel about kiosks?
    Altering a business process in someone’s place of employment can be disconcerting. We work with payment center managers to educate their staff on what changes they can anticipate.
  • For instance, cashiers can typically expect fewer rote person-to-person interactions and can refocus their time to help customers solve bigger challenges. Setting up a payment plans or reflecting a name change on an account is a little more time consuming. This helps ensure that customer service representatives become champions of any new services you plan to provide in your business. Business today is all about an overall better customer experience.
  • How will goods purchased through kiosk transactions affect existing infrastructure?
    Social Security benefits pay out on the third day of each month, which coincides with most utility billing cycle due dates. This means there’s usually a high volume of customers at payment centers on those days, as well as on the usual payday schedules.
  • At client locations with drive-up kiosks, we’ve seen traffic jams with lines of cars extending into the roads and even to blocked intersections. Some of our clients bring in traffic control to help minimize stress on high-volume days. Business owner’s understand that investments go beyond the items they are providing — in this case — a kiosk. Easing any stressful moments with a little planning provides clients and customer’s with a more relaxed overall experience.

It’s Smart to Listen to the Experts

While becoming experts on the sellable item themselves, businesses need to realize — very quickly that they cannot be an expert in everything related to their product or service . To build a B2B product that works for the end users as well — this means listening to experts in the payment center industry (i.e. those who work in or rely on payment centers regularly).

Spending time on the road visiting client sites and observing customer behaviors will always be a part of better business practices. Interactions with clients, seen first hand, needs to be the goal of each business owner. This is especially the case in B2B business learning experiences. Customer service reps will be the main contact in most B2B businesses products and services.

New innovations in a product or service need testing. The testing process will be appropriate even when merely revamping the look or feel of a product or service. A team of Purdue University researchers conducted a usability study with a diverse group of kiosk users.

The research findings helped inform the redesign of our kiosk technology to make it more user-friendly for a broader segment of the population, including those who are less tech-savvy, those who have color blindness, and those who may not read English easily. (Read our blog on building accessible, usable tech.)

One Size Does Not Fit All

While the underlying CityBase payment technology is the same from one kiosk model to another, the functionalities can vary depending on the features our clients choose to turn on or off.

For example, one common question our clients have when choosing a kiosk is whether it will dispense change. Offering change means clients have to reconcile more cash. It also means that the kiosk requires extra servicing, as different teams from servicing companies (like BRINKS) are responsible for extracting and reloading change.

Utility clients that want the ability to dispense change have to know how much to include, and in which denominations. To answer these types of questions, data from clients are analyzed and then recommendations are made. Of all utility cash transactions, 30 percent of customers request change. On average, they receive $6 back. Kiosks generally provide change in one — and five-dollar denominations.

To determine how much change is required for a day, we factor in the following: a kiosk’s bill threshold minimum (on average 125–150 bills), average number of transactions per day, and frequency of servicing the change-making device.

When we work with government clients, like DMVs that collect payments outside a fixed customer account, they have to offer change. Their kiosks function more like a cashier: there’s no option for customers to apply overpayments to a next visit, because customers don’t visit on a regular basis.

That means DMV kiosks have to be capable of providing change for every cash transaction. What’s more, the average change amount was different than at our utility clients, so we had to examine a fresh batch of data in order to make recommendations for how to stock their kiosks.

Remember: We’ve Got One Chance to Win New Fans

For a first-time user, a greatly improved user experience doesn’t matter — if it’s still not convenient, efficient, and simple there will be a problem. As with any business product or service — Kiosk customers are busy and rightfully wary about where their money goes.

They may be on a tight deadline to get a payment in — or to get home for dinner. If products or service don’t work immediately, clients and customers will likely to turn to other options.

As important as it is to design technology that works intuitively for end users, this should be the baseline standard. A team must create payment technology for utility services that people need. The responsibility to make sure the technology is actually helping make people’s lives easier stay with the business side of work.

That means helping customers feel confident about using kiosks to make important payments, and it means supporting utility companies to provide excellent customer service. Those working with design have to keep at top of mind — the “big-picture perspective,” as we develop our products.

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