Why utility companies still struggle to resolve billing issues despite the smart meter revolution

March 27, 2024
Ever since the European Commission proposed the installation of smart meters in homes back in 2014, most of Europe has experienced a smart meter revolution.

To date, there are countries like France and Spain, that have achieved a smart meter rollout of over 80%. Whereas others like Germany, have an installation rate of only 1%. However, despite the fluctuations in rollout rates, what all these European countries have in common is that they still report major quality issues when it comes to customer billing.  

Even countries with high smart meter deployments rates still experience billing issues, which in turn impacts customer satisfaction and loyalty.  In a market that is opening up more, with disruptive players offering innovative services, traditional retailers can no longer afford to ignore the issue.      

Let’s take a closer look at the underlying reasons for these billing issues:

The link between customer support and billing issues

In a competitive energy landscape, utility companies need to adopt a consumer-centric approach. This means ensuring that bills are understandable and clearly explained with cost calculations, and consumer data.  

Billing also needs to be dependable, which means providing energy users with adequate notice of price changes so they can budget accordingly and avoid falling into a deficit.  

A lack of customer support is one of the primary reasons for billing issues. According to a report published by the UK Citizen’s Advice Bureau, there’s a significant gap in the quality of customer service offered by the top five suppliers, compared to those in the bottom five. The worst suppliers only respond to 35% of customers emails within two working days, compared to 86% for the best suppliers.  

Likewise, a recent report from Microsoft finds that UK energy companies have some of the highest call centre wait times in Europe with an average of 35 minutes and 34 seconds. By contrast, the Spanish Government recently drafted a bill that requires utilities companies to answer calls within 3 minutes.  

As such, energy companies need to make use of live chat facilities on their websites, strive for fast email response times, and take the necessary steps to reduce call centre wait times.

A lack of consumer education

Utility companies need to support their customers in being able to change their consumption habits in a way that minimises their risk of developing billing issues.  

For example, energy companies need to educate consumers on how they can use real-time data from smart meters to put an end to estimated bills and access a broader range of tariffs.  

Likewise, providing energy saving advice through email, or on fuel bills, can encourage people to take practical steps to being more energy efficient. According to a 2022 report from the UK Government, improving energy efficiency in homes can reduce heating bills by around 20%.

Similarly, given that 64.4% of energy consumption in EU households comes from space heating, utility companies should make consumers aware of how much money they can save by not heating empty rooms, and using energy efficient products and appliances.

Digital tools need to be used effectively

A recent report published by Frost and Sullivan, found that spending on digital tools within the energy distribution and retail industries will increase by 10.5% per year from $12.33 billion in 2020 to $33.42 billion by 2030.  

Not only do digital tools like smart meters generate more reliable consumer data, but the data can also be processed in real time, making energy bills more accurate.  

With reliable consumer data, energy companies can then personalise their product offerings to consumers and ensure they have access to cost-effective tariffs. For example, some consumers might benefit from ‘time of use’ tariffs, where they can access lower costs at certain times of the day.  

Likewise, providing consumers with mobile apps to track their usage can encourage behaviour change and reduce the likelihood of building up debt with their supplier. Apps can provide usage alert notifications, billing information, and energy market updates. They can also help explain complex pricing structures.

In spite of these benefits, a 2023 report from consumer intelligence company J.D. Power, found that the number of large energy companies offering mobile apps has declined in the past two years, with 30% of the largest providers currently offering no mobile app at all.

Today, energy consumers expect to be able to access their energy usage data and billing information immediately. Suppliers who don’t provide this level of transparency are undoubtedly losing consumer trust, experiencing long call center wait times, and inevitably finding it more challenging to resolve billing issues.

A slow response to market changes

In 2022, electricity and gas prices hit a record high, which prompted various price caps all across Europe. And because energy regulation models differ across European countries, utility suppliers had to act quickly to ensure they were offering price caps in line with regulations.

Inevitably, volatile energy markets create more consumer billing issues. And when utility companies don’t respond quick enough, these issues quickly snowball.

In order to respond to market changes quickly, energy companies need to embrace cloud-based energy management platforms that provide instant access to consumer data.

With a software-as-a-service (SaaS) system, data can be decoded quickly to help energy companies stay on top of trends, and tailor their offerings to consumers. For example, dynamic pricing options can be offered to low-income and vulnerable households.

In today’s energy market, pricing regulations are ever-changing and fuel suppliers need a flexible platform that enables them to adjust their pricing systems immediately.  

At triPica, our platform enables dynamic pricing and invoicing, so fuel suppliers can implement changes to billing systems seamlessly.

What utility companies can learn about billing accuracy from telecoms

Even as little as 5 years ago, the telecoms industry had the same billing headaches as energy companies. The breakdown of charges was difficult for customers to understand, which lead to increasing customer disputes.  

However, in recent years, the telecoms sector has evolved its business models, and thus, it’s billing models too. Whereas customers used to subscribe to plans that included set amounts of call minutes, SMS texts, and data, now the telecoms business model largely operates under a single platform.

With the rise of digital services and 5G, telecoms providers have adapted to manage call minutes, messaging, internet usage and entertainment services within a unified billing structure. In fact, as of December 2021, Ofcom made it mandatory for telecom providers to provide transparent billing.  

Utility companies would do well to embrace this single platform business model and update their legacy systems to be more flexible, transparent, and customer-centric. Today, consumers expect flexible pricing options, the ability to track their own energy usage and calculate their costs accordingly.  

Implementing a single platform will enable energy companies to digitalise and improve the accuracy of their billing, all the while streamlining their business processes and improving customer service.

How triPica can help utility companies resolve billing issues effectively

When call centre agents are overwhelmed with the number of customer complaints that need resolved, a company’s costs-to-serve can skyrocket. Our cloud-based SaaS platform gives utility companies more control over their billing. It helps them avoid customer bill shocks by sending alerts when consumption increases.

Our platform ensures bills are always accurate and clear and it empowers customers and agents by providing real-time transparency to consumption and billing practices. Our 360° customer view CRM portal allows agents to respond to customer needs in real-time and impress the customer with excellent service by offering relevant information at the right moment.  

Moreover, our Flow Manager functionality enables utility companies to visualise all data received from the grid, like meter readings, and switching records. It enables records to be parked and automatically retried when flows aren’t received in the expected order. It also includes a search feature to display all relevant information about a record.

If a business model relies on multiple IT systems, interfaces, and a large IT team, our platform can streamline operations by offering a one-stop-shop for all ‘meter-to-cash’ activities.

Energy companies can have a single catalogue-centric system for billing, accounting, and customer support. And they can accommodate a wide range of commodities and non-commodities offers, while seamlessly manage auto-consumption and energy production.

For example, one of our customers, Yenka, an energy supplier in France, recently replaced two legacy platforms with triPica in just 6 months. The company optimised its business model and now manages all meter-to-cash activities in one place. Our platform also helped improve the visibility of Yenka’s customer data and decreased its cost to serve.

Find out more about how triPica can help your company resolve its billing issues quickly and effectively while accelerating your digitalisation efforts.

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