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E-billing started out as a way for utilities to cut cost to serve, but it has since proved its worth as a debt recovery tool, says James Perry.

With the explosion of laptops, smart phones and other smart devices, electronic billing (e-billing) has become a popular choice for customers. People are proving keen on being able to manage their expenses from anywhere (providing there is a decent wi-fi connection), particularly if this also means they can avoid a paper billing charge. By seeing exactly what they are spending and on what, they can change their consumption habits if needs be and cut their outgoings.

For utilities, e-billing reduces cost to serve. In many cases it has galvanised a beneficial tidy-up of billing practices. And although there were initial set up costs, many companies will have found those costs offset by benefits, to the point that e-billing would have become a cost-neutral or cost-positive investment.

Among such benefits are improved cashflow, because the online process dramatically cuts the time between an invoice going out and the payment being received. Moreover, as all e-communications are documented, records can be easily accessed in the event of a dispute. This makes any legal process simpler and cheaper, giving businesses greater motivation to take legal action on occasions when a customer refuses to pay.

Indeed, it is in debt recovery more widely that

e-billing is proving to have some of its most valuable advantages. It can dramatically improve the productivity and efficiency of the credit control department, primarily because sending out reminders to customers to chase payments can be automated. Furthermore, because payments can be made online, energy and water suppliers can get an immediate response when chasing outstanding invoices, rather than having to wait for the cheque to arrive in the post – which occasionally it has the habit of not doing on time.

To get the most out of e-billing as a debt-recovery tool, utilities need a twin track approach. They need a good system that will increase efficiency within the debt recovery unit, reducing the administrative burden on the whole business and helping it to remain competitive.

Even more important is a well trained and motivated debt recovery team, be it internal or external, such as an experienced team of solicitors and paralegals. These are difficult times, but businesses need to remain focused on the fact that the people pressing the buttons and processing the work are of more value to them than the computer systems they are operating.

So, through e-billing, utility providers can manage their debt recovery process more effectively and control their costs. However, while technology can automate processes, drive down costs and create a better customer experience, companies need to ensure they still have a solid workforce or an effective external supplier in place to properly complement it.

James Perry, senior solicitor, recoveries team, DWF

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 18 May 2012.

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