Automated billing: Have we gone too far?

Have you noticed that just about all of your creditors are pushing automatic online bill paying in a big way? I'm talking about encouraging customers to have their billed amounts automatically withdrawn from their bank accounts each month.

I actually got a paper bill from my long-distance phone company the other day that informed me of the following: If I wish to continue to receive a paper bill, I'm going to incur an extra charge for that. If I view and pay my bill online, I won't incur the extra charge. This is a move similar to what some airlines have done in imposing a nominal penalty for buying tickets over the phone instead of online.

I know why companies are eager to move customers to automatic online bill paying. It saves them tons of money in printing and postage. But is it really the best thing for customers? And are companies really able to provide accurate bills that we don't have to audit? (I realize you can still audit an online bill. I'm making an assumption, however, that in our busy world, people who get their bills online don't spend as much time reviewing them as those of us who still get paper.)

In the early days of automatic withdrawal for bills, I was a gung-ho advocate. It seemed like a great idea, largely enabled by information technology. Now I have a more conservative strategy regarding this "improvement."

Here's how I'm approaching the issue in my own life:

For recurring bills such as mortgage, car payment and insurance premiums, I'm perfectly comfortable with direct and automatic withdrawal from my bank account. These bills generally don't vary from month to month, so I'm glad to have the opportunity to save the effort of writing either electronic or paper checks.

For credit card statements, I still want to see paper, if for no other reason than that paper serves as a personal form of "checks and balances." (Did I really spend that much at Costco last month?)

For bills from utilities (such as the phone, gas, electric and water companies), I have absolutely refused to pay in this automated fashion. Quite frankly, I have found too many mistakes on such bills in the past. I know that if I didn't receive that paper statement every month, I would be less likely to review the charges and catch the errors online.

If it sounds like I'm being a bit cranky, consider this scenario: I was recently away from home for almost three weeks. Upon returning, I found myself facing a stack of mail, several bills and, ultimately, several phone calls, including these:

I had to call my cell phone provider and have it remove a US$75 charge for a service I tried to sign up for while on vacation but could never get to work (phone-to-Internet stuff).

I had to call my local phone company and have it remove a US$30 charge for a second DSL connection that I was being billed for -- but don't have.

I had to call my bank, because while I was away, it made, and then corrected, a banking error in my checking account. The problem was, when I checked my statement online, there was no explanation as to why this money was going in and out of my account. I found out what was going on only when I called and talked to a live person.

If your organization is contemplating a campaign to aggressively push automatic bill paying, here's my advice: Absolutely get the bills right.

Billing errors have long plagued certain industries, such as telecom. If your company in one of those industries, and it keeps making mistakes, customers are going to be unwilling to give up their paper bills. Sure, they can always view their bills online, but in this busy world, they can easily forget.

Also, carefully consider the implications of charging extra for the "privilege" of receiving a paper bill. Not all customers have computers or Internet access, particularly outside of the U.S.

As for me, I'll pay the penalty for the privilege of receiving my long-distance bill in the mail. I have the sneaking suspicion that, even with the extra charge, I'll still come out ahead.

Barbara Gomolski, a former Computerworld reporter, is a vice president at Gartner Inc., where she focuses on IT financial management. Contact her at barbgomolski@yahoo.com.

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