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 still 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.
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 actually 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.
When you think about it, your invoices mirror your business. We all 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 or they’ll call your office to ask questions, which eats up staff time.
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, asking 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.
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, but 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.
When you redesign your bills, there are a number of ways it will improve your business. For example,
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.
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 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, show you ways it can be improved, show you what your peer businesses are doing and work with you and your staff 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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