Monopoly Incompetence

Need more proof that monopolies are bad business? Just try to pay a utility bill online sometime. I have just gotten through attempting to pay my cable, gas, and electric bills online. Exactly none of them offered what I would consider a minimally competent site. The exact problems varied, but there was one that was common across the three. Every single one required registration before they’d take my money:

  Welcome to My Account Online services! Please enter your user ID and password to sign in. New User? Register now.

By contrast, non-monopoly sites like Office Depot have long since learned that registration is an optional step they shouldn’t let get in the way of completing a sale. But the utility companies? Either they hire developers who are distinctly behind the state of the art, or they just don’t care because you have to pay them, or both.

How easy should it be to pay a utility bill online? It’s a form with about four or five fields, no more:

  • Account number
  • Credit Card Number
  • Expiration Date
  • Name on Credit Card
  • Amount to pay (this one could even be autofilled based on the account number.)

Unlike an online store, they shouldn’t need to ask for a shipping address. Maybe they need a billing address (though that should default to the service address) or the CVV2 code, but utility bills are unlikely to attract the same sort of fraud that online stores do, so I’m not sure even that’s necessary.

They absolutely don’t need:

  • Your e-mail address
  • A username
  • A password
  • Service address
  • CAPTCHA (They really think someone’s going to set up a bot to autopay utility bills?)
  • The city where your mother was born. (No I’m not making that up. Cox really wanted that piece of information.)

Account number, minimal credit card (or debit card) info, amount to pay. That’s all.

21 Responses to “Monopoly Incompetence”

  1. Pete Kirkham Says:

    > Amount to pay (this one could even be autofilled based on the account number.)
    That’s a rather small leak of personal information – try various account numbers, and you find who pays on time, just by filling in a form with a valid credit card number. Though getting the account number for a person is probably harder. Having a one-use code printed on your last bill might also be better security.

    In the UK the websites are generally as bad or worse (typically only tested on IE). It’s not a monopoly, so I have changed companies for better payment services – the one I was with charged 10% more if you didn’t pay by direct debit, but had a minimum of 25 pounds per quarter, which was more than my combined gas and electricity energy bills, so I ended up being a hundred in credit on the lesser, so stopped one, then found it impossible to move credit from my electric to pay for the gas with the same provider. It’s hard to make an informed choice as to what payment services are like before you move, but I moved to one which didn’t penalise you for paying online, and (once you install adblocker, as the payment site uses an animated flash background, which appears in the foreground using Firefox on Linux), I didn’t have any problems. But I still had to register, and every three months get a password reminder, which makes the whole thing less secure than just taking the money.

  2. Rob Bender Says:

    I don’t mind having to register. What really makes me mad are companies who want to charge me EXTRA to pay my bill online. I know my mortgage company alone wants to charge me $10/month to pay my bill online, unless I sign up for their auto-debiting scheme. Hell no!

  3. Paul C. Says:

    What if the name on the card is not the same as the name tied to the billing address? (I’m paying my student child’s bill. My spouse is paying the bill.)

    What if you have multiple properties?

    What if there are multiple people in town with the same name?

    I think you need the service address. You’d also need a ‘contact info in case of problems’ field. If the user is processing the transaction and can’t figure out which bill the user is trying to pay, you’d want some way to get in touch with the person.

  4. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    If the name on the card is not the same as the name tied to the billing address, nothing changes. Half my accounts don’t spell Elliotte right anyway. Ditto, there being multiple people in town with the same name is irrelevant. The account is identified by a unique account number, not a name or an address.

    If you have multiple properties, you likely have multiple accounts, at least for typical folks who aren’t professional property managers. I have no idea how professional property managers handle this, but I suspect they have different needs, different billing systems, and different accounts.

    Problems in charging the card should be immediately reported on the next page, just like problems buying a book. These can provide additional information so the user can contact the utility company. (I’ve never seen a utility company proactively contacts anyone about billing problems. They just send a late payment notice automatically when the next billing cycle comes around.)

  5. mogden Says:

    What you say is true. Sadly, the biggest monopoly of them all is the federal government, and it’s about to take another giant leap upwards in size.

  6. verisimilidude Says:

    mogden – It’s not the largest in the world, just in this country. And it’s hardly a monopoly. Last I heard it represented (roughly) 300 million of the world’s 6 billion human inhabitants. And budget graphed against GNP puts the US about the middle of the pack. Although it is tied to where you live like the electric service company you can use is tied to the city you live in, which is the problem Mr Harold is complaining about.

  7. mogden Says:

    Yes, for me it’s a monopoly, but not for residents of other countries certainly. Monopolies don’t have to be world-wide.

  8. johny Says:

    I agree there’s incompetence in utilities, but you’re barking up the wrong tree here …

    You need to register because the utility may roll in other online services that require authentication and authorization (like checking
    your bill status/amount, enrolling in utility programs, etc.). And having you registered makes it easy for them to inform and publish these services to you easily.

    And really, how much of a bother is to register once and be done with it? Just think of it as sorta like having to enter an email address/website, etc. to comment on this blog …

  9. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    But I don’t want to register for those extra services. I want to pay my bill. That’s it. They’re making it harder to do that.

    Most online stores have learned that you don’t put any more than the absolute minimum number of hurdles in the way o someone giving you money. Why haven’t utilities learned this? I posit that it’s their monopoloy status that is the ultimate cause for this problem.

    As to commenting, I wish paying a utility bill were that easy. Notice that you don’t have to register here, and I don’t confirm the information you send because it’s not necessary. Perhaps I should make the e-mail address optional, but it’s still a one-step process. The utility companies aren’t this good yet.

  10. Pepito Says:

    Here in Costa Rica paying a phone bill, for instance, is dead simple. I do it at the grocery store, right at the register. Only two things are required – the phone number and the money.

  11. KaJun Cheng Says:

    “Most online stores have learned that you don’t put any more than the absolute minimum number of hurdles in the way o someone giving you money. Why haven’t utilities learned this?”

    Stores reduce the hurdles because they want to make a sale. When you want to pay your bill, you’ve already consumed something, and you owe them whether they make it easy or not.

    “I posit that its their monopoloy status that is the ultimate cause for this problem.”

    I kind of agree, but the “ultimate cause” part really rubs me the wrong way. I think you should keep in mind that utilities are not run by geeks, so they don’t think about these sorts of things the same way. To them, the website is still an improvement over processing checks in the mail. It lowers their costs, and it wasn’t too hard to do (they tapped a manager’s son as a “contractor” and did it as a summer project, who knows). If you want them to improve, you are the one who has to sell them on the benefits of a better website.

    In this way, you tie the economics of an online store to the economics of the utility – the website is to reduce costs for THEM, and better websites reduce costs further or drive more sales. The point to take away is that there is only so much benefit to be gained from a better website – for stores, they can sell more, so of course they invest more into better websites. Like I said before, you already owe the utility company, and a better website does not mean you will consume more. Thus, out the window goes a huge incentive to make a better website.

  12. James Orenchak Says:

    Elliotte wrote “Half my accounts don’t spell Elliotte right anyway”. I hope that doesn’t include bank accounts. Any bank in the US not correctly identifying all of their customers is not compliant with US “Know your customer” banking regulations! I would not do business with a bank that blatantly ignores important US banking regulations.

  13. huxley Says:

    Not to disagree with your main point which I agree with 100%, but to quibble with one of your statements:

    They really think someone’s going to set up a bot to autopay utility bills?

    Nope, but they might set one up to test credit card numbers … not that a CAPTCHA will save you there, because they can hire a person to run small test transactions on hundreds of cards for practically nothing.

  14. Al Eridani Says:

    “Either they hire developers who are distinctly behind the state of the art, …”

    I think you mean “they hire business analysts”.

  15. Barry Says:

    I am lost…

    If I want to pay bills online, I go to my online banking and add payees….

    Am I missing something here ?

  16. Jakob Bohm Says:

    In my country (Denmark, Europe), most utilities offer the following set of payment options:

    a (preferred, smallest fees): Add the utilities account number, your utility account number and your bank account number to the joint Direct Debit system run by the banks (“PBS”), this can be done by snail-mail to PBS or through whatever online banking you may have. This takes effect starting with the “Next” bill. PBS sends a monthly statement listing which bills they will debit from you in the coming month (I just got the May one), and each utility is allowed to include some of their own text with their listing, thus saving them the cost of even sending out their own paper bill. Direct Debit payments must be canceled no later than 1 week after receiving the monthly statement or the payment will happen, thus bills in the first week of each month may get reverse charged if you cancel at the last moment. Incidentally, the PBS data center also handles all credit card and debit card payments in the state

    b Tear off the postal transfer (Western Union-like system) slip at the bottom of the paper bill, go to any local post office or bank and pay in cash. One 3rd of the slip is stamped as paid and returned as a receipt. There is a $2 to $3 postage charge by the post office or bank for the handling and a $0 to $10 billing charge from the utility for them sending you the slip in the first place.

    c Snail-mail the postal transfer slip to your own bank along with your account number. There is the usual $1 postage for sending a letter. Plus a $0.50 to $3 service fee to the bank for opening the envelope and mapping the envelope to your account (the slip is machine readable via OCR text at the bottom). The receipt subslips are snail mailed back. The bank reserves the right to autosubscribe the bill to the direct debit system above. The $0 to $10 billing charge for receiving the paper slip still applies.

    d Type the OCR text and the amount into your online banking system. The $0 to $10 billing charge for receiving the paper slip still applies. There is no paper receipt, but you can request one for $2 extra.

    e One utility (just one) offers (at least until recently, I did not check) the option of paying cash at their HQ, carrying the paper slip. The $0 to $10 billing charge for receiving the paper slip would still apply. But you would have to travel to their HQ and be there during some short office hours to do it, so it is (was?) mostly just a quaint tradition for the nostalgics.

    Options a through d form a common system offered by banks to just about any company, charity or institution, I have used it to pay anything from mortgages and taxes to the membership fee for the electronics club at my alma mater.

    Utilities and the tax authority (similar to the IRS) also allows online reporting of your meter readings income and deductions. You identify yourself with your account number (social security number for the tax) and a pin code printed on the paper letter asking for the info. For simpler transactions they also allow you to just touch-tone dial your data, account number and pin into a modified telephone answering computer.

  17. Paul D. Knowles Says:

    Non-existent customer service at Natwest and complete lack of any attempt at complaint resolution.

  18. mDuo13 Says:

    KaJun Cheng appears to be missing the point. Having a good website is not about getting customers to buy more gas or electricity by making it easier to do so. It’s about attracting more customers. If the company weren’t a monopoly, you could jump ship to the competitor whose website is easier to use or better suits your tastes. It’s precisely because of the fact that the company is a monopoly that “you already owe them” for your bill and they have no incentive to improve it.

    Also: you people like Pepito and Jakob are living in some kind of fabulous dream world. I wish I had such simple luxury.

  19. Mokka mit Schlag » Verizon Incompetence Says:

    [...] another example of monopoly incompetence. « Warcraft is a Comic Book. It Should Be a [...]

  20. KaJun Cheng Says:

    mDuo13 – above, I said “and a better website does not mean you will consume more” – I did not say that a utility would drive more sales with a better website. You may have misunderstood my comparison of an online store’s website with a utility’s website.

    A different example may be better: I use and have used several different credit cards, and the decision as to which one I use is not affected at all by how easy it is to pay. In other words, the different credit cards compete with each other and are thus not a monopoly, and since I use the credit card I already owe them (just like this utility situation), and they each have websites of varying quality and ease of payment, and the differences in quality and ease of payment did not affect my decision on which one to use. I think many other people are the same way. If I pay much attention to the selling points in advertisements for credit cards, they usually push low interest rates, not ease of payment.

  21. Xapp Says:

    My bank allows me to register payee’s by account number and pay the bills from their online banking page. One stop and all bills are paid. Just sign in, select a payee, the amount, submit, confirm and Bob’s your uncle. (I live in Canada btw. Not sure if this service is available in US/UK/etc.. It should be though.)

    Cheers.

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