Is It Time To Redesign Your Bills?

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Your bill is your main point of contact with your customers. Is it sending the best message?

redesign your bills
Are you getting a lot of calls from confused customers about the invoices they’ve received from your company? It could be time to redesign your bills.

We just got a new car, and it has some amazing features. If you cross the white line, it pulls you back; if you are about to cause a rear-end collision, it brakes. Its special mirrors, cameras and other tools make us better drivers.

Cars are a part of daily life, and the auto industry is always moving forward, making changes that improve safety, driving comfort and durability. I think there’s another area of daily life that could use some innovation and improvements–billing/invoicing, what we call transactional. I don’t know about you, but I get a few bills that look like they were chiseled out in the Stone Age. Thankfully, some firms–like this health care company, which won an award for its invoice–are putting a lot of work into making their bills better.

Is your bill easy to understand?

Bills can suffer from multiple problems. Sometimes, their format doesn’t do well in the mail. For example, small postcards often get damaged and lost in the USPS automated machinery. Other times, invoices are confusing because of poor design or writing, or they are peppered with codes, acronyms and abbreviations that only the company understands. I’ve even seen a couple of cases where no one took the time to make sure all the physical aspects of a bill worked. Proof? A payment slip that didn’t fit correctly in the return envelope.

Professional looking invoices signal that your company is a pro

When you think about it, your invoices mirror your business. We spend a lot of time worrying about our company’s letterhead or business cards, but the design of our invoices? Not so much. Yet, they reflect the professionalism of your company and its staff just as your stationery does.

When bills are hard to read, difficult to understand or just plain unattractive and confusing, they are a poor reflection. Poorly designed invoices also affect the bottom line; if a bill is confusing, people are not as likely to pay on time. If you’re lucky, they’ll call your office to ask questions, which eats up staff time.

One clear sign that you need to redesign your bills

If you get a lot more calls from customers a few days after your bills are mailed, that’s a sign that your invoice has problems. A good way to get a grasp of the issue is to monitor customer service calls for a month or two. Ask customer service staff keep track of the questions they get from customers about invoices. Common problems include the use of terms or wording that the general public does not understand or a design that buries the important information like how much is owed, what the bill is for, when payment is due and how to contact the company for more information.

An effective invoice is clear and easy to use

I’ve overseen the redesign of invoices for more than 100 companies, and I want to point out a couple of things. A good invoice doesn’t need to be pretty or fancy. It has to be clear, easy to understand and simple to use. When we undertake a redesign, we take a comprehensive approach and go beyond choosing an easy-to-read typeface and making elements like the amount due and date due stand out–although those are important improvements to be sure. But we look deeper, because there are many ways we can help you send a better bill.

5 reasons to redesign your bills

When you redesign your bills, there are a number of ways it will improve your business. For example,

  1. A well-designed bill or invoice not only looks good, it works better. Effective design makes it clear to customers how much they owe and when. It also explains what they are paying for.
  2. Clearly showing the amount of payment due and date payment is due improves collection.
  3. Although a redesign won’t save money at the outset, it does over time because your office becomes more efficient. Your staff spends less time answering customers’ questions about bills. On average, when we redesign invoices, customers see customer calls concerning invoices drop by half.
  4. If your current bill is an inefficient format, like a postcard, a redesign can shift it to a standard business-size envelope, which has better delivery rates. You’ll no longer have to resend invoices that weren’t received. You can read about one of our clients who made such a change here.
  5. A well-designed invoice can become a billboard or a no-cost ad. Redesigns usually free up white space on your bill, which can be used to give your customers messages about service or new features. It gives you the opportunity to encourage more of them to pay online or set up automated billing accounts. One of our clients, a utility company, found lots of ways to use space on a traditional bill, when it shifted from a postcard.

sample bill

Companies drag their feet when it comes to invoice redesign

When was the last time you looked critically at the bill you send to customers? We find that almost all of the companies we meet with are unhappy with one or more aspects of their bill, but they all tell us the same thing when we ask why they haven’t fixed what bothered them. They don’t feel like they have time to take on what seems like an overwhelming project. Bill redesign goes to the backburner, often for years and years. The task seems just too complex and time-consuming to be tackled.

Transactional professionals can make an invoice far more effective

To have an effective billing system, you have to know a good deal about accounting, graphic design, communication, mailing regulations, printing and technology. When your primary business is say, supplying electrical power to 20,000 rural customers, or providing health care to a region’s residents, those areas may not be your areas of expertise.

So, a bill makeover is probably a logical times to bring in outside expertise for transactional issues. You’ll need one company that does a lot of different things well–transactional, mailing, printing, design and IT primarily. A qualified transactional partner will look at your current bill objectively. They will then show you ways it can be improved, what your competitors are doing and work with you to make changes. I recommend looking for a company that has a lot of bill redesigns in its portfolio–this is one of those areas where it is good to see what is working for other companies and borrow the best ideas.

We’ve worked with dozens of businesses. A lot of them are utilities; we’re also seeing an uptick in health care clients. But of course every business–including B2B–has bills and invoices to send.

3 simple steps for effective invoice redesign

When you choose a transactional partner, you want to make sure that you will be involved throughout the bill redesign process. We take several steps when we work with a client on a bill redesign.

Here’s a case study that shows how the process worked for one of our clients.

  1. A thorough study of your current invoice. A good partner will ask for a sample of the bill you now send and will look it over carefully. In our case, reviews involve a team of staff from sales, graphic design and marketing and IT.
  2. Transactional experts meet your team and asks lots of questions about your billing process. After we thoroughly review your invoice, our team will sit down with yours, which will usually include someone from management, accounting and IT and often marketing, too. It is critical that those areas are at the table because we will have questions that go beyond the design of your bill. We’ll want to hear about the billing process in total–how often you invoice, the different payment options you use, who handles payments, questions customers ask most often, things about your actual bill that you don’t like or don’t think works well, things you would like to add to your bill– think of it as a wish list for when you redesign your bills. Because we have done a lot of this work, we’ll bring samples of bills from similar companies and ask your staff to study them and tell us what they like or dislike. We’ll also want to talk to IT about the kind of data available in case you want to offer up some new information on the new bill. For example, a lot of utility companies like to provide their customers with usage charts.
  3. Based on research and discussions, a new invoice is designed. Based on that conversation and the information we gather, we’ll come up with a design (or possibly several) for the client to review. We will make tweaks as needed and then, the bill is ready to go. And, after we send them out, and we see how they work. Additional tweaks can easily be made in the bill design because we print on demand.

Most common changes in invoice design

A lot of bills share this problem–they bury the most important information. There are best practices you should follow, but basically, when you redesign your bills, you should put a lot of effort into making these 5 elements stand out:

  • The reason for the invoice. A clear list of services and/or products received.
  • The total amount of charges. Everyone wants to know how much they owe.
  • The due date. Bills without one don’t get paid as quickly.
  • Who to call. Providing multiple ways to contact your company is essential to good customer service.
  • Ways to pay. If you offer payment options, let customers know what they are.

These most elements can be designed to stand out. Using a contrasting ink color, like a bright red or blue, or putting it in a larger, bolder type can help customers find the most important information quickly. Some companies use a visual cue, like circles around the amount due and due date.

Making adjustments in the layout of a bill or in a typeface can also make an invoice much clearer. And, of course, there must always be an assessment of wording and messages when you redesign your bills. Are you using terms that are only familiar to those in your industry? It can pay to have someone outside your industry read bill samples and tell you what is unclear to them.

Redesign should look at the entire billing process, not just the piece of paper

When we talk to clients about their invoices, we bring up possible changes that go beyond the bill’s appearance. Here are some of the things we’ll always discuss.

Billing cycle. How many to you have; do you need more?

Imagine this. Your utility has one billing cycle for 25,000 customers. That means all those bills share the same due date. Such a billing cycle means an intense period of work, especially if payments come to your office instead of a bank lockbox.

When you redesign your bills, you may decide to rework your billing cycle. Most often, they split one large billing period into two or three billing cycles per month so that payments are more of a flow than a flood. Of course, it depends on the number of bills sent, but in the example above, splitting the billing into two monthly cycles would effectively spread the work out and make things less hectic. If the number of bills sent is small though, one billing cycle is often not a problem. And sometimes, because of the way staffing and budgeting is set up within an organization, sticking with a single billing cycle is best.

Promoting online billing options

When you redesign your bills, it can be a good time to add new payment options. Although digital payments are popular, some organizations, especially small utilities, haven’t moved much in that direction. But when bills are changed, it is a chance to add new information about different methods of payment. You just have to be ready, technology wise, to accept such payments.

Eliminate needless return envelopes for online payers

If you accept online payments, we can set up our system so that return envelopes are not placed in the bills for those customers that use online payment. That way, you don’t waste money on needless envelopes. We work with your IT staff to get the information we need to set up such a system.

Cross promo messaging: other services

When you redesign your bill, it often creates new, vacant space on an invoice and this real estate can be used in a number of ways. Messages can change from month to month, depending on your needs. Here are a few ideas:

Safety messages. Many utilities need to remind customers about safety issues. For example, electric companies must constantly remind homeowners to call before they plant trees, plow gardens or dig other holes in their yard.

New services or products. Most businesses change and add new services or products. A blurb on a bill is a good way to make customers aware of changes. It won’t tell them everything, but it can send them to your website or provide a phone number for more information.

Seasonal messages. Depending on the time of year–around the Christmas and New Year’s for example, office hours might be modified. Space on a bill can be used to remind customers of shortened hours or office closings.

Your printed invoices aren’t going away; make sure they work effectively for your business

Sometimes, I wonder if companies aren’t concerned about their printed invoices because they think printed bills are going to go away. That seems doubtful, given recent research that found about 66 percent of household bills and statements will be mailed in 2018. About a quarter of the population would rather have a paper bill for security reasons, especially for areas where privacy is critical like finance and health care. Another interesting stat: One in three people who tried electronic only bills have gone back to paper delivery. So an effort to redesign your bills would not be in vain.

The most important thing to remember though is that no matter how you send your bill, it must be easy to understand and read. And that’s where a partner like Bluegrass can be valuable. Give us a call and we’ll help you decide if you need to redesign your bills.


John Young

Director of Business Development

March 13, 2018

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