Ensuring that big business gets big service

The City of Johannesburg relies on the regular income from the payment of rates, water and electricity. One source that provides the City with a high level of income is business.

Shopping malls, banks, industrial parks and others of the same size and ilk can consume electricity and water in amounts that would make the homeowner weep. They are huge consumers of these key infrastructure elements and the City needs to keep them happy.

The key accounts department of the City of Johannesburg has been created specifically to look after these users to ensure that they get the right level of service and that any problems are resolved before they escalate.

Key accounts assistant director Mothusi Tawane explained: "We have segmented our accounts according to their consumption in water, rates and electricity.
We call these our large power users and they are categorised as being part of our remit when they are consuming over R400 000 per month in electricity and R80 000 per month on water.

"Their average is around R1-million a year in expenditure on these services. With rates it would be around R50 000 a month. These are the minimum invoice amounts that a customer has to meet in order to qualify for our VIP and key account services."

The team handles these customers on a one to one basis, looking into the queries and concerns that they may have and, of course, making sure that these customers receive their invoices on a monthly basis. Their role also extends into ensuring that payments are received, billing is done correctly and all accounts are accurate and fair.

"According to the by-laws we can only estimate a rate for a period of three months. For those customers who rely on an estimate, we make sure that they get billed every three months, if not on a monthly basis," he said.

So, why should these organisations and industries receive special treatment? It works to the benefit of everyone, including the man on the street.

"These power users have auditor generals that come out and audit their accounts on a yearly basis," said Tawane.

"It's our job to make sure that these customers are up to date and audit-ready so that they are not negatively impacted when they have to report to the auditor general. From our side, we want to make sure that these customers succeed and generate the necessary profit as this will, in turn, benefit the City."

Ensuring fairness and accuracy for business accounts
The department has undertaken a huge role that extends far beyond just making sure that large businesses pay their bills on time.

They have to deal with tariff issues, payment problems, interest management and invoice control, and these are not as straightforward as they sound.

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) sets the tariffs for power users and ensures that all pay a fair and equitable rate; however, there are situations where certain customers or businesses pay a bit more, or a bit less.

"We have instances whereby unintentionally certain customers might pay a bit more than they should, but the regulator is ensuring that these issues are phased out.

"I believe that these issues are usually an oversight, not an intentional error, and Nersa is working on this at the moment. Every time we have a new tariff that has to be implemented we take it to the mayoral committee for approval.

"Then it goes to Nersa, then it is open to the public and then the cycle is repeated until Nersa has approved these new rates."

Tawane explained that often an issue like this, where a client pays more than they should, is the result of a change on the client's side.

"You may find that one particular customer has been using the property for manufacturing, only to find that property has now been changed to a warehouse, so consumption has decreased.

"Unfortunately, the client didn't notify us in time and we kept the old tariff, the manufacturer tariff, only to find out at a later stage that the customer isn't using that much electricity," said Tawane.

Fortunately there is a way forward, and it is here that the department steps up and helps the client to resolve the issue. The same resolution process is applied to problems that occur during the invoicing stages every month.

These include instances when a client has not paid their account by the due date, when the invoice has not been sent to the correct person due to internal changes at the organisation, or payment through third parties that results in a delay before the amount is reflected in the City's accounts.

"We have our interest committee look into these issues on a regular basis to see if they should either reverse the interest or decline it.

"Whether they reverse it or not is dependent on the query that has been brought to the council's attention."

Customer negligence is one instance where the interest will not be waived. Sound harsh?

Considering the volume of clients that must be handled, and the value of their monthly payments, it seems only fair that the City be strict when it comes to them paying on time.

"We have instances where we have the account number that a customer has to use as a reference. If customers, for whatever reason, forget to put that particular reference number onto their payment, then that amount won't be allocated immediately or automatically.

"It might take a day or two and in this time you could end up suspending the account, or there could be interest accumulated over these days. In that instance, as it is due to a customer error, we cannot reverse the interest."

Tawane also outlined other areas of concern. One is the fact that some customers pay on the due date, but use a third party.

The latter can take two to three days before the payment reaches the City of Johannesburg's bank account and, once again, interest is raised that cannot be reversed.

"This is why we have the VIP and key accounts. We help businesses to avoid most of these challenges that could impact negatively on them."

The department plays many roles in keeping these customers and their accounts on a steady monthly path.

They even step in to assist customers who are, for example, shifting from one bank to another.

They ensure that the right people are notified of the fact and that allowances are made for the delay in payment. They make sure that interest is not gathered on the account or that it is reversed if it is accidentally added.

It's all in the invoice
There are 21 days between the day of invoice and the due date, and within this time period the department spends its time making sure that customers have received their invoices.

A business can choose from four different methods: e-services, regular post, personal delivery and personal collection.

"We email the invoices through to the customers that have registered for our e-services solution. Then we make sure that they have received these emails and that they have been sent to the right person within the organisation," said Tawane.

You're probably wondering what they do for the rest of the day. Well, according to Tawane there are around 310 customers that have members of the department driving to their doors and hand-delivering the invoices to the person in charge.

"We personally drive to the customer's property and make sure that those invoices are delivered. Our key account managers go to each and every customer."

With this level of personalised service, few customers can claim that they never received their invoice; however, there can still be issues with the amount itself.

The department includes queries on invoice irregularities as part of its remit. Its role is to check on these and to find ways of resolving them before prohibitive interest rates are implemented or the account is suspended.

"Due to our meter reading profiles, we know exactly how each of our key accounts consumes specific services on a monthly basis.

"For example, we are aware that company A has a certain amount of consumption every month. This also depends on the season.

"We know that during winter consumption increases, but then thereafter we just have to compare this current season and the previous one.

"We use these checks and balances to make sure that consumption is in line and should there be any deviation, before we even invoice that particular account, we gather the relevant information.

"We ask the customer if there has been any change in their consumption, such as new equipment or using the air conditioning more frequently, anything that could affect their reading."

Once the team is aware of any alterations on the customer side they can then adjust the system to match.

"Let's take one of the malls for example. You might find that one of their major franchises has moved out and in that instance we expect consumption to decrease. If we are used to you consuming about 100kva, and there is a drop to 80kva, we have to investigate."

The department profiles customers according to their usage and it is this methodology that gives it the insight it needs to catch a multitude of concerns before they become ensnared in the invoice web.

Many of these are resolved before the customers are billed, which saves both sides time and money.

However, there will be times when a customer queries an invoice amount and the team needs to find out what has gone wrong.

Each customer has their own representative within this department, who they contact in this situation and who will take the matter further within the City's numerous internal departments.

"We raise it with the requisite official — if it is water, we raise it with Johannesburg Water, if it's electricity, then we will bring City Power into the picture.

"From there we then give the customer our findings and advise them accordingly. In some instances, if the customer is comfortable with whatever we've picked up, and their engineers are happy with the update, we proceed with invoicing for that particular month.

"If the problem is related to the building, we should be able to resolve things within seven days.

"In one week we should be able to diagnose the problem and provide a solution. If it's a meter reading issue we will install a new meter and then we will agree on a testing period with the customer.

"In that period we will wait and see if the consumption is reflecting the same as the original queried invoice, or if it has reverted to their usual amount. After that period we will bill the customer retrospectively," said Tawane.

It's a speedy service that ensures both client and the City are not left with unresolved issues for untenable lengths of time. The department keeps a close eye on queries and manages the impact on the client seamlessly.

Johannesburg's power users need not worry about unexpectedly large bills going unnoticed, and the City need not worry about bills not being paid regularly.

"During the query period we accept the normal monthly payment that a customer makes. If your monthly payment is R100 000, you're going to expect that every month, so on our side we try to correct any discrepancies as fast as we can."

Greening the City's businesses
These key account and VIP teams also map out the future of larger organisations.

At the moment, they are driving awareness of green technologies and solutions within their client base and it is something for which the City should be commended. Green policies have far-reaching benefits that work well for both parties.

"We have been moving towards what we call green energy. We advise our customers to change the type of equipment that they are using to see if they can move some of it to solar, or to change some of their operations from peak times to off-peak times.

"We give them solid advice on how to use electricity sparingly and show them how it can also decrease their monthly consumption, which will also impact on their monthly payments," explains Tawane.

Every year the department assesses its customer profiles and reviews their expenditure. This highlights new customers that need to be brought under the care and attention of the teams, and others that no longer fit the parameters and are removed from the list.

Those that fall away from the services provided by the key accounts department are given alternative points of contact.

"As soon as a customer no longer fits our parameters or categorisation, we provide them with other sources for dealing with their accounts," explains Tawane.

"We have increased the capacities of our walk-in centres and our regional offices to be able to deal with those customers.

"The way we assess who stays and who goes is based on their levels of consumption and the amount of money they spend each month — a minimum of R400 000 on power, R80 000 per month on water and R50 000 on all services."

The assessment takes place every 12 months and businesses are informed in advance of any change in status. Customers who lose the hands-on attention of this department will not necessarily suffer as a result.

Those that have registered for the e-service will continue to receive updates and invoices as per usual, as will those who rely on the postal service or collect the invoices themselves.

It's only those businesses that have their invoices hand delivered that will have to make another plan, as that particular service is exclusively for those who qualify for the key accounts and VIP treatment.

Driving the development of the city is the income generated by the expenditure of these businesses.

Without their regular payments the City struggles to keep its side of the bargain, to run it as a well-oiled machine, and to this end the key accounts department has been invaluable.

The team works closely with the City, the various departments within the City and their customers to ensure that the system works smoothly. Their ability to detect an issue in advance, to move swiftly, repair a potential problem and manage the concerns of the customer is vital.

While it may sound like a simple process — issue appears, customer calls the representative, the representative calls the relevant office, the issue is resolved — it rarely is that easy and the members of this department work under extraordinary pressure.

Today the department handles hundreds of power customers and continues to grow and adapt to the changing needs of both the City and its users.

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