It's good to pay on time

If utility companies communicated better, they could save millions in late payments. By Roger Trapp

The financial problems of small companies on the wrong end of larger organisations' late-payment policies are well known. Less documented are the effects of such practices on larger entities, particularly utilities.

The likes of British Gas, BT and the regional electricity companies are probably not first in line for most people's sympathies, but research just out suggests that they and other suppliers of life's basics could be losing more than pounds 1bn in lost revenues because their customers pay them late.

Research from the customer service management company Ventura indicates that nearly 30 per cent of customers wait until the last date on their first bill before paying and that 22 per cent do not settle their accounts until receiving the final reminder.

There are regional differences, with households in the South-east being the worst offenders while those in Yorkshire are the most prompt payers. But that does not stop Mark Astbury, sales and marketing director at the company formerly known as Club24, describing the late payment of bills as "an alarming fact of life" for businesses that fail to appreciate fully the significance of the effect on the bottom line.

"Late payment is actually costing them millions," he says. "Chasing late payments, forgotten bills and providing debt counselling has to be paid for and it is the companies, not the consumers, who have to foot the bill."

Since he points out that more than 50 per cent of consumers fail to pay bills on time, it is arguable that the public is footing the bill: if companies were not having to meet such huge costs, they could, presumably, cut their prices.

Either way, Mr Astbury suggests that the way organisations deal with their customers is a key element in the problem. And he believes that Ventura, which is a member of the Next group of companies and includes such clients as Kingfisher and the Co-operative Bank, is in a good position to solve it.

One of a number of organisations that are starting to offer customer- management services, it is recommending that companies take more care about communicating with their customers.

Pointing out that many utilities - and even some charge and credit-card operators - have only lately started to make clear when bills should be paid by, he adds: "Constant communication to create a clear understanding of payment methods, effective customer service and understanding individual customer needs, coupled with flexible payments is the way to get customers to pay on time every time."

According to the research, many consumers do not understand the payment methods available to them, he says. Most of the 500-odd people questioned said they preferred to settle bills by charge card, even though only 2 per cent of UK consumers currently have them. On the other hand, the least favoured payment method is direct debit, an option that most service providers are encouraging customers to adopt.

Collecting payments is just one of the activities that customer-management companies can help with, adds Mr Astbury. Their telephone marketing staff can use their training in debt counselling, budgeting and managing payment plans to contact customers individually and increase the likelihood of prompt payment, he says.

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