Better Bills

By Colleen Jones

Published: June 9, 2008

“Many bills are poorly designed, causing needless confusion and frustration for customers and businesses alike.”

The bill is a cornerstone communication in the customer experience, especially when it comes to billing for services. Customers want to easily understand and pay their bills, and businesses want to get paid on time. One would think a business would value the bill enough to invest in a thoughtful design. Yet many bills are poorly designed, causing needless confusion and frustration for customers and businesses alike—not to mention expensive customer service and customer churn. To encourage forward progress in the design of bills, this column profiles three common types of bill readers, discusses nine tips for improving bills, and notes some common implementation challenges.

Types of Bill Readers

“Considering the specific types of customers a business has, what industry a business is in, and other related issues of context is critical to designing for its specific types of bill readers.”

An important consideration in creating better bills is, of course, how customers read them. To provide guidance for the design of bills, first I’ll describe a few common types of bill readers in a business-to-consumer setting, based on my own experience. As with all UX design, considering the specific types of customers a business has, what industry a business is in, and other related issues of context is critical to designing for its specific types of bill readers.

The Skeptical Inspectors

The bill readers I’ll call skeptical inspectors tend to monitor budget closely and pay strict attention to anything financial. Each time skeptical inspectors receive a bill, they promptly read its details very thoroughly and literally. Consequently, these bill readers quickly notice errors and inconsistencies. If skeptical inspectors perceive a problem with a bill, they do not hesitate to call customer service about it. Although, because such bill readers are attentive to their finances, they also tend to pay consistently and on time.

The Alert Scanners

Alert scanners pay fairly close attention to their finances and also tend to pay consistently and on time. These bill readers look at their bills either upon receiving them or at their regularly planned time to pay bills. When reading a bill, such bill readers scan its key information, especially the amount due. Usually, alert scanners do not read a bill’s details unless they see a problem or something unexpected. If, after reading the details, alert scanners still have concerns or questions about a problem they noticed, they are likely to call customer service. Alert scanners may also read details if a bill is the first one they’ve received from a business.

The Ignorers

When ignorers receive bills, they do not look at them right away—if at all—for a wide variety of reasons:

  • Some ignorers intend to review their bills, but their hectic schedules get in the way. They likely pay online or over the phone and may review a statement later. If they notice a problem while reviewing a statement, they may call. Unfortunately, a call to resolve a billing issue after a customer has paid a bill tends to be more complicated and, therefore, requires a longer and more expensive call than a call to customer service at the time a customer received a bill.
  • Other ignorers are not concerned about particular bills, especially if the amount due is fairly low and stays consistent from month to month. They may pay online or through an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system and be good candidates for automated payment.
  • Still other ignorers may be experiencing financial challenges or know a bill may be high. They may have a tough time bringing themselves to face the reality their bills present. Some of these ignorers may call customer service to try to arrange payment plans for their bills. Such calls do cost a business, but not as much as receiving no payment or starting a collections process.

Characteristics of Different Types of Bill Readers

Different types of bill readers behave differently when reading and responding to bills. Table 1 shows some characteristic behaviors of the different types of bill readers.

Table 1—Different types of bill readers

  Skeptical Inspectors Alert Scanners Ignorers

Read a bill…

When they receive it

When they receive it or at a regularly scheduled time

Never or only after it is paid

Their reading style is…

Thorough and literal, so they are quick to notice errors or inconsistencies

Skimming and focused on the amount due

Similar to that of alert scanners—for those who do read their bills

Their interest in details is…

High

Moderate—and only when they notice a problem

Low

The likelihood of their calling customer service is…

High when they perceive there is a problem

Moderate when they notice a problem

Low—with the exception of those experiencing financial challenges, who may call to make payment arrangements

The likelihood of their paying is…

High

High

Varies

Nine Tips for Designing Better Bills

Following these basic tips can help you improve your company’s bill design. While these tips focus on the bill in its print and online forms, they also provide some guidance for their voice forms. (In some of the figures, I’ve obscured identifying information.)

Tip 1: Make the amount due and the due date clear.

Above all else, make the amount due and the due date stand out, so customers—especially alert scanners—can easily find this information. Many paper bills bury the amount due in a table with other numbers or in a sea of details. Figure 1 shows two bills: In the top example, the amount due and due date are fairly clear, but they’re hard to find in the bottom example.

Figure 1—Two bills—one clear, the other not

Two bills

Tip 2: In online bills, clearly distinguish between the amount currently due and the account balance, and plainly indicate payments received.

Now that customers can avail themselves of a tremendous amount of self-service online, it’s critical to distinguish between a bill or statement and a customer’s overall account information. A bill or statement records a moment in time and should remain static, while an account balance should always be up to date, with updates occurring in as close to real time as possible. The amount due is part of a bill or statement and should be static. The account balance should change to reflect payments, credits, and other account activity and should not affect a bill or statement. Therefore, when customers log in and view their account summary, the focus should be more on the account balance than the amount due. Even better, indicate the latest payment received.

I’ve seen customers become confused when these different types of information have inconsistent labels. One way to distinguish all of this information clearly is to use the labels that customers expect and use them consistently both on paper and online. The account summary in Figure 2 caused customer confusion, because it did not effectively distinguish between the account balance and the amount currently due, or charges, and did not show the customer’s most recent payment.

Figure 2—A confusing account summary

Confusing account summary

Tip 3: Ensure all forms of a bill are consistent and that customers perceive them as consistent.

“Few things result in calls to customer service faster than inconsistency, whether real or perceived.”

Few things result in calls to customer service faster than inconsistency, whether real or perceived. Many customers with online accounts are still receiving paper bills, too. The paper bill is obviously static. The online bill is usually part of a larger account management application, with a wealth of information. The kinds of customer confusion I noted in Tip 2 can also lead to confusion about whether the paper bill and the online bill are consistent.

Distinguishing a bill or statement from other account information is key to clarity. One way of distinguishing these different types of information is to introduce visual consistency between the online and print bills or statements. In addition to displaying an HTML version of a bill online, providing a PDF bill or statement that looks exactly like the one in print can also help convey this consistency and help customers who are resistant to receiving their bills online feel more comfortable with it.

Tip 4: Don’t use gobbledygook text.

As much as possible, avoid providing information all in capital letters and describing the items and services for which you are charging a customer using funky codes that have meaning only within your company. Such gobbledygook text adds unnecessary noise to a bill and gives it a very impersonal tone. This tip may seem obvious, but in large, long-established organizations, billing systems may be old and have constraints that seem antiquated. Workarounds are possible, but may take time to implement. (See the challenges I’ve described in the section “Facing Reality: Implementation Challenges.”)

Tip 5: Don’t inundate all customers with detail—instead, provide a summary and access to more information.

The amount of information in an AT&T iPhone bill can be overwhelming, as shown in Figure 3. For most services, a bill that fills a box or a living room floor is inconceivable, but it’s still possible to overwhelm a customer with detail. Only skeptical inspectors relish reading the detail. Provide customers with options regarding the level of detail they receive and encourage customers to view details online.

Figure 3—One customer’s enormous iPhone bill

Enormous iPhone bill

Tip 6: An exception to Tip 4: When a bill changes from the norm or there are extraordinary charges, briefly explain why in a summary and provide access to more information.

A customer may be accustomed to paying the same amount each month for a service. If skeptical inspectors or alert scanners receive a bill for a different amount than is usual, they will want to know why. Even some ignorers may want to know why after they pay. Providing some explanation in a summary can help allay immediate concerns, and offering access to more detail assures customers that a change or difference is not an error. The key to customer confidence is ensuring the brief explanation and the more detailed explanation are consistent with one another.

Tip 7: Subtly and concisely remind customers of a service’s value.

When skeptical inspectors and alert scanners are reading a bill, their financial state of mind may lead them to assess whether they need a service. This is the perfect time to remind them of your service’s value. Well-written descriptions of what they’re paying for can emphasize the value of a service. Also, concise reminders of how much they’ve saved, rewards they’ve earned, or other benefits help reinforce the judgment that the service is worth the amount due.

Tip 8: Rarely include marketing or upsell information—and if you do, make sure it’s highly relevant.

In the research I have seen, marketing materials companies have inserted into an envelope containing a paper bill do not perform well. Adding marketing or upsell information to an online bill adds complexity and can cause usability problems—just as it can to an interactive voice version of a bill. Customers, especially skeptical inspectors and alert scanners, are focused on what they owe and likely feeling the pull on their purse strings. Asking customers to buy more intensifies the sensation of that pull. Instead, follow Tip 7 and focus more on easing the pull, by reminding customers of your service’s value.

Tip 9: Promote self-service billing and payment options.

One great promotion to include with a paper bill is the benefits of self-service billing and payment options. Self-service benefits both customers and businesses alike—not to mention the benefits to the environment of reducing paper use. Self-service is also highly relevant to the bill. Concisely explain ways to access and pay the bill online. For online or voice versions of a bill, provide quick access to payment options. Also, if an automated payment option is available, promote it both online and on the phone to reach the appropriate ignorers.

Facing Reality: Implementation Challenges

“Designing a bill isn’t easy, because it as an intricate part of the larger customer experience. ”

Designing a bill isn’t easy, because it as an intricate part of the larger customer experience. Along the way, you may encounter some implementation challenges that seem daunting, but you can overcome many of them with persistence.

Technology and Data Challenges

Billing systems in many organizations are old. They also tend to interconnect with or provide the foundation for many other systems using newer technology. Such a complex foundation can limit the parsing and presentation of information online—such as having to provide information in all caps or using cryptic codes. Also, making billing information available through multiple channels adds another layer of complexity, which can make achieving consistency in the information across the channels difficult. For instance, account balance updates may reach the IVR faster than the Web.

Organizational Challenges

“UX professionals can have a positive impact on bill design.”

A company’s billing system is, in many ways, sacred, and tinkering with it is serious. The IT side of the business may resist questioning even seemingly superficial issues such as whether the data presentation can change, and they may be resistant to efforts to address such issues. Furthermore, billing touches many other parts of a business, including customer service, legal, and finance. Also, marketing often wants to put information inside or in proximity to a bill. Balancing all of these stakeholders may not be easy.

Despite these challenges, I am confident UX professionals can have a positive impact on bill design. One approach is to start small, perhaps working on only a part of the bill. For instance, I rewrote and redesigned a charge explanation for a bill. That small victory, coupled with a strong executive advocate, soon led to the opportunity to do a more comprehensive redesign.

Conclusion

“Surprisingly, the bill—one foundation of the customer experience—does not always get the design attention it deserves.”

Surprisingly, the bill—one foundation of the customer experience—does not always get the design attention it deserves. I find bill design particularly exciting, because of the scale of this design issue—it reaches every customer. UX professionals can make a difference in the billing experience by understanding how customers read bills, following some simple guidelines, and starting with small improvements. Such efforts likely will reduce customer service costs, increase payment timeliness, reduce churn—and make life for your customers much easier.

References

Design Council. “T-Mobile: Making Monthly Communications More Effective.” Design Council, June 3, 2008. Retrieved June 5, 2008.

Szuc, Daniel, and Gerry Gaffney. “E-Bill Usability.” UPA Voice, 2004. Retrieved May 24, 2008.

6 Comments

What a great overview. I especially appreciate how you highlight the sometimes overlooked impact that legacy systems can have on the customer experience.

Starting small as you suggest is a good way for individual UX professionals to make inroads when trying to change huge systems like billing. But this overview also makes the case that we should seek out these 10,000-foot views to identify potential usability barriers across an organization. As you point out, it often takes a high-level decision maker to effect the change required, so it makes sense to analyze the problems at a higher level.

Great article! Billing is one of those components often overlooked for the fancy front-end pieces, but it can be one of the most crucial to get right. Customers are the most concerned about their money, after all. =)

Thanks, Nick! The efforts can seem slow, but pay off with persistence.

Good point, Greg. Few things get a customer angrier faster than a bill problem, real or perceived! The customer’s potential emotional response should be a key consideration when designing the bill.

Great article and read. As someone who is going through—that is, testing out—a variety of hosted online-invoice systems, your points did help immensely in making sure such necessities were addressed in the billing system we are trying to adopt.

Be interesting to look at how companies can create online billing experiences that encourage customers to unsubscribe from paper bills with the goal of being more sustainable.

It always hurts receiving statements that are printed unnecessarily on pages and pages of paper without any real use.

Enjoyable read :)

Dan—Excellent point. The mobile industry does a pretty good job of promoting online-only billing within the Web site experience. But I see a lot of variation in others such as the banking / financial industry. It would be great to take a closer look.

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